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An Agrarian History of South Asia 


David Ludden’s book offers a comprehensive historical framework for 
understanding the regional diversity of agrarian South Asia. Adopting a 
long-term view of history, it treats South Asia not as a single civilisation 
territory, but rather as a patchwork of agrarian regions, each with its 
own social, cultural, and political histories. The discussion begins 
during the first millennium, when institutions of ritual, conquest, and 
patriarchy formed an archipelago of farming regimes that steadily 
displaced and assimilated pastoral and tribal communities. It goes on to 
consider how, from the sixteenth to the nineteenth century, the concept 
of modern territoriality evolved as farmers pushed agriculture to its 
physical limits and states created permanent rights to all the land. 
Subsequent chapters focus on the development of agrarian capitalism in 
village societies, which emerged under the British and which formed the 
bedrock of the modern political economy. In contemporary South Asia, 
the book argues, economic development and social movements continue 
to reflect the influence of agrarian localism and the shifting fortunes of 
agrarian regions with histories which can be traced back to medieval 
times. 

As a comparative synthesis of the literature on agrarian regimes in 
South Asia, the book promises to be a valuable resource for students of 
agrarian and regional history, as well as of comparative world history. 


DAVID LUDDEN teaches South Asian and world history at the 
University of Pennsylvania. His publications include Making India 
Hindu: Community, Conflict, and the Politics of Democracy (1996) and 
Peasant History in South India (1985). 


Cambridge Histories Online © Cambridge University Press, 2008 


Cambridge Histories Online © Cambridge University Press, 2008 


THE NEW CAMBRIDGE HISTORY OF INDIA 


General editor GORDON JOHNSON 


President of Wolfson College, and Director, Centre of South Asian Studies, 
University of Cambridge 


Associate editors C. A. BAYLY 


Vere Harmsworth Professor of Imperial and Naval History, University of Cambridge, 
and Fellow of St Catharine’s College 


and JOHN F. RICHARDS 


Professor of History, Duke University 


Although the original Cambridge History of India, published between 
1922 and 1937, did much to formulate a chronology for Indian history 
and describe the administrative structures of government in India, it has 
inevitably been overtaken by the mass of new research over the last 
sixty years. 

Designed to take full account of recent scholarship and changing 
conceptions of South Asia’s historical development, The New 
Cambridge History of India is published as a series of short, 
self-contained volumes, each dealing with a separate theme and written 
by one or two authors. Within an overall four-part structure, thirty-one 
complementary volumes in uniform format will be published. Each will 
conclude with a substantial bibliographical essay designed to lead 
non-specialists further into the literature. 

The four parts planned are as follows: 


I The Mughals and Their Contemporaries 
II Indian States and the Transition to Colonialism 
Ill The Indian Empire and the Beginnings of Modern Society 
IV The Evolution of Contemporary South Asia 


A list of individual titles in preparation will 
be found at the end of the volume. 


Cambridge Histories Online © Cambridge University Press, 2008 


Cambridge Histories Online © Cambridge University Press, 2008 


THE NEW 
CAMBRIDGE 
HISTORY OF 

INDIA 


IV - 4 
An Agrarian History of South Asia 


DAVID LUDDEN 


University of Pennsylvania 





‘| CAMBRIDGE 
6) UNIVERSITY PRESS 

















ES 


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PUBLISHED BY THE PRESS SYNDICATE OF THE UNIVERSITY OF CAMBRIDGE 
The Pitt Building, Trumpington Street, Cambridge cB2 1RP 


CAMBRIDGE UNIVERSITY PRESS 
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© Cambridge University Press 1999 


The book is in copyright. Subject to statutory exception and to the provisions of relevant 
collective licensing agreements, no reproduction of any part may take place without the 
written permission of Cambridge University Press. 


First published 1999 
Printed in the United Kingdom at the University Press, Cambridge 
Typeset in Garamond 10.5/13pt [cE] 
A catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library 


Library of Congress cataloguing in publication data 


Ludden, David E. 

An agrarian history of South Asia / David Ludden. 
p- cm.-—(The new Cambridge history of India) 
Includes bibliographical references (p. _ ). 
ISBN 0-521-36424-8 hb 
1. Agriculture — Economic aspects — India. 

2. Agriculture — India — History. 

1. Title. 1. Series. 


DS436.N47 1999 
630'.954-dc2z1 98-43856 CIP 


ISBN 0 521 36424 8 hardback 


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FOR ROCHONA 


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Cambridge Histories Online © Cambridge University Press, 2008 


CONTENTS 


General editor’s Preface page xi 
Acknowledgments Xill 
Introduction I 
1 Agriculture 6 
Historicity 7. 
Seasons 17 
Maps 36 
Landscapes 48 
2 Territory 60 
Peasantry 69 
Dharma 76 
Conquest 87 
Patriarchy 96 
3 Regions 113 
Frontiers 113 
Sultans 121 
Land 130 
Culture 140 
Administration 153 
4 Modernity 167 
Motfussil 168 
Development 180 
Mobilisation 190 
Locality 217 
Bibliographical essay 231 
Index 249 
ix 


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Cambridge Histories Online © Cambridge University Press, 2008 


GENERAL EDITOR’S PREFACE 


The New Cambridge History of India covers the period from the 
beginning of the sixteenth century. In some respects it marks a radical 
change in the style of Cambridge Histories, but in others the editors 
feel that they are working firmly within an established academic 
tradition. 

During the summer of 1896, F. W. Maitland and Lord Acton 
between them evolved the idea for a comprehensive modern history. 
By the end of the year the Syndics of the University Press had 
committed themselves to the Cambridge Modern History, and Lord 
Acton had been put in charge of it. It was hoped that publication 
would begin in 1899 and be completed by 1904, but the first volume 
in fact came out in 1902 and the last in 1910, with additional volumes 
of tables and maps in 1911 and 1912. 

The History was a great success, and it was followed by a whole 
series of distinctive Cambridge Histories covering English Literature, 
the Ancient World, India, British Foreign Policy, Economic 
History, Medieval History, the British Empire, Africa, China and 
Latin America; and even now other new series are being prepared. 
Indeed, the various Histories have given the Press notable strength 
in the publication of general reference books in the arts and social 
sciences. 

What has made the Cambridge Histories so distinctive is that they 
have never been simply dictionaries or encyclopaedias. The Histories 
have, in H. A. L. Fisher’s words, always been ‘written by an army of 
specialists concentrating the latest results of special study’. Yet as 
Acton agreed with the Syndics in 1896, they have not been mere 
compilations of existing material but original works. Undoubtedly 
many of the Histories are uneven in quality, some have become out of 
date very rapidly, but their virtue has been that they have consistently 
done more than simply record an existing state of knowledge: they 
have tended to focus interest on research and they have provided a 
massive stimulus to further work. This has made their publication 
doubly worthwhile and has distinguished them intellectually from 


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GENERAL EDITOR’S PREFACE 


other sorts of reference book. The editors of The New Cambridge 
History of India have acknowledged this in their work. 

The original Cambridge History of India was published between 
1922 and 1937. It was planned in six volumes, but of these, volume 2 
dealing with the period between the first century aD and the Muslim 
invasion of India never appeared. Some of the material is still of value, 
but in many respects it is now out of date. The last fifty years have 
seen a great deal of new research on India, and a striking feature of 
recent work has been to cast doubt on the validity of the quite 
arbitrary chronological and categorical way in which Indian history 
has been conventionally divided. 

The editors decided that it would not be academically desirable to 
prepare a new History of India using the traditional format. The 
selective nature of research on Indian history over the past half- 
century would doom such a project from the start and the whole of 
Indian history could not be covered in an even or comprehensive 
manner. They concluded that the best scheme would be to have a 
History divided into four overlapping chronological volumes, each 
containing short books on individual themes or subjects. Although in 
extent the work will therefore be equivalent to a dozen massive tomes 
of the traditional sort, in form The New Cambridge History of India 
will appear as a shelf full of separate but complementary parts. 
Accordingly, the main divisions are between 1. The Mughals and their 
Contemporaries, 11. Indian States and the Transition to Colonialism, 
ut. The Indian Empire and the Beginnings of Modern Society, and ww. 
The Evolution of Contemporary South Asia. 

Just as the books within these volumes are complementary so too 
do they intersect with each other, both thematically and chronologi- 
cally. As the books appear they are intended to give a view of the 
subject as it now stands and to act as a stimulus to further research. 
We do expect the New Cambridge History of India to be not the last 
word on the subject but an essential voice in the continuing discussion 
about it. 


Xu 


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ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS 


This book has taken a long time to finish. I thank everyone connected 
with the New Cambridge History of India for their patience, espe- 
cially Chris Bayly and Marigold Acland. Along the way, my thinking 
has been improved by Romila Thapar, Muzaffar Alam, Neeladri 
Bhattacharya, Sugata Bose, Ayesha Jalal, Sanjay Subrahmanyam, 
Tosun Aricanli, Rosalind O’Hanlon, Burton Stein, Nick Dirks, 
Sheldon Pollock, James Boyce, Gyan Prakash, Dina Siddiqi, Ahmed 
Kamal, Michelle Maskiell, David Rudner, Binayak Sen, Zillur 
Rahman, Arun Bandopadhyay, M. M. Islam, and David Washbrook. 
Cynthia Talbot, Ahmed Kamal, Robert Nichols, James R. Hagen, 
David Gilmartin, M. M. Islam, Minoti Chakravarty-Kaul, R. Vasavi, 
and K. Sivaramakrishnan gave me unpublished manuscripts that were 
vitally important. I benefited from seminars at the Yale Center for 
Agrarian Studies, University of Calcutta, the University of Melbourne, 
the University of New South Wales, Curtin University, the University 
of Chicago, Jawaharlal Nehru University, Columbia University, the 
Indian Institute of Technology (Madras), The Power and Participation 
Research Centre (Dhaka), and the University of Pennsylvania. I have 
used research funding from the National Endowment for the Human- 
ities, the American Philosophical Society, the American Institute for 
Indian Studies, the University of Pennsylvania, and Fulbright-Hays. I 
thank the professional staff at the National Archives of India, the 
Library of Congress, the Tamil Nadu Archives, the National Archives 
of Bangladesh, the National Library of India, the India Office Library 
and Records, and the Madras Institute for Development Studies. The 
library staff at the University of Pennsylvania are a constant help, and 
I especially thank Kanta Bhatia and David Nelson. Thanks to Robert 
Nichols, Supti Bhattacharya, Amy Iwata, Vivek Bhandari, Sarah 
Diamond, Jeremie Dufault, and Teresa Watts for their able research 
assistance. 


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INTRODUCTION 


This book is about history’s attachment to land. It considers the 
present day in the context of the past two millennia, because a wide 
historical view is needed to appreciate the ideas that shape contem- 
porary mentalities, and because earthly environments today are being 
shaped by long-term historical forces. As the book goes on, I consider 
some elements of Eurasian history and introduce some ideas about 
geography, technology, patriarchy, ritual, ecology, and other subjects 
that situate South Asian farmers in their wider world. I also indicate 
that more research into the historical dynamics of territoriality is 
needed to improve our knowledge of culture and political economy. 
But, like other volumes in The New Cambridge History of India, the 
main goal of this book is to draw together research by many scholars 
on a coherent set of historical themes without rehearsing academic 
debates or piling up citations. The bibliographical essay is a guide to 
relevant literature that sprawls across the disciplines of history, 
anthropology, economics, geography, political science, and rural 
sociology. I apologise for not covering many regions well enough and 
particularly for slighting Assam, Baluchistan, Chhattisgarh, Kerala, 
Nepal, Orissa, and Sri Lanka. This failure results partly from the state 
of research but mostly from my own inability to compile appropriate 
data in the time and space allotted. For these reasons, territories in 
Bangladesh, India, and Pakistan form my central subject matter. 

The marginality of agrarian history demands attention. It is not 
unique to South Asia, but proportionately more books do seem to treat 
the agrarian past in Europe, the Americas, Russia, China, and Japan. 
Though culture and political economy are not more detached from the 
land in South Asia than elsewhere, scholars would seem to think so. 
This may reflect a more general alienation. As the urban middle-class 
intelligentsia came into being in the modern world economy, they wove 
the countryside into their epics of nationality, and, to this day, agrarian 
history evokes interest to the extent that country folk represent national 
identity. Everywhere, agrarian history is submerged in the historio- 
graphy of nations and states. We need to keep this in mind because 


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INTRODUCTION 


historical knowing is a force in modern transformations of the world 
and a tool for making the country in the image of the nation. National 
histories have formed territoriality and incorporated rustic folk into the 
project of modernity, so the past of its peasantry maps the rise of 
national power on the land. Modernity’s general alienation from its 
agrarian environment pervades agrarian studies, and when combined 
with orientalist stereotypes, it simply pushed peasants more deeply into 
the margins of history in South Asia than elsewhere. Because villages 
there seemed totally traditional, lacking any inherent drive to moder- 
nity, they were assumed to have no actual history, only timeless 
permanence. Studies of the rural past thus recounted the incorporation 
and subordination of villagers by city folk. Urban elites made nations, 
and they made the history that brought South Asia from ancient times 
to the present. The village past seemed to be a permanent affliction. 

There is much to learn on the margins of history. Most evidence on 
the agrarian past continues to be unused today, not because it is 
inaccessible but because it has seemed uninteresting and unimportant 
for the history of modernity; and we can use this neglect to measure 
the blinkers of modern minds. If we want to understand modernity as 
a moment of human history, agrarian history is a good place to look 
and South Asia is a good place to work, because here modern 
machineries of knowing have mangled less of the original data. In 
Europe, the Americas, and East Asia, scholars have constructed rural 
history as the legacy and memory of modernity and they have built 
national identity on a solid agrarian footing. In South Asia, dom- 
ineering epistemologies of nationality have not paved over so much of 
the landscape or cemented together the past of nations and of peasants 
so comprehensively. Villages fit much more firmly and neatly into 
national histories in France, England, the United States, China, and 
Japan than they do in Sri Lanka, Nepal, Pakistan, India, and Bangla- 
desh. The lasting force of regional diversity in South Asia derives from 
the fact that, historically, its agrarian territories have marched to 
different drummers, and even in different directions. Scholars have 
repeatedly argued that agrarian South Asia evades the discipline of 
progress. All the histories of all the empires and nations in South Asia 
could never capture the history of all its peoples. 

With this in view, I want to explore agrarian history outside 
modernity’s construction of the past. Life on the land seems to entangle, 
confront, and suffuse modernity without being overwhelmed or 


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INTRODUCTION 


absorbed by it; and, when urban middle-class scholars write agrarian 
history, we stumble repeatedly and awkwardly upon this stubborn, 
enticing otherness. The misty longevity and persistent localism of 
agrarian history resist narration and escape the grids of time and space 
that define national history. Narratives cannot untangle all the rhythms 
of agrarian change or trace all the lines of movement in apparently 
stable rustic routines. Agrarian South Asia thus provides a historical 
vantage point from which to reconsider modernity and nationality. For 
this purpose, we need an extended chronology for tracing the rise of 
contemporary conditions. In this book, history’s trajectory is not 
moving toward national independence or national development but 
rather into the trends that influence agrarian environments today. 
These trends represent other histories that are still unfolding inside 
national states but outside their control, in small-scale agrarian terri- 
tories which have never been fully defined by modern nationality. 
These territories have their own histories in which local struggles are 
tangled up with national and international institutions and also with 
global networks of power, mobility, and communication. 

In studies that cover long periods of time, semantic problems 
abound. I employ place names from different epochs — calling ancient 
Kosala ‘the region of Lucknow’ or ‘Central Uttar Pradesh’, for instance 
— to enable the reader to keep track of various terms that attach to places 
over millennia. This anachronism also encourages a reader to imagine a 
distant past alive in the present; and, indeed, people build a future on a 
past that never really disappears. Common terms that I use for regions 
(Awadh, Deccan, Bengal, Punjab, Assam, Uttarakhand, Gujarat, Telan- 
gana, and such) refer broadly to old regions rather than to the strictly 
bounded territories of today. Modern cities and towns are useful 
landmarks, and contemporary political and administrative territories 
are convenient markers for large regions in all times. Modern district 
names help to identify small regions, but we need to keep in mind that 
district names and boundaries change, as do their identities within states 
and nations, especially after 1947. I use the district names for these 
geographical areas found in Joseph E. Schwartzberg, A Historical Atlas 
of South Asia (second impression, Oxford University Press, New 
Delhi, 1992, p. 79).' Many district names continued to be used after 


! For regional names during the historical periods before and after 1200, see Joseph E. 


Schwartzberg, A Historical Atlas of South Asia, New Delhi, 1992, p. 137. 


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INTRODUCTION 


1947 — though they have been changed with increasing frequency in 
the past twenty years — and whenever possible I refer to districts 
without naming the national state within which they lie. This helps 
to avoid the impression that the boundaries of contemporary states 
were inscribed on the agrarian landscape before 1947. The relation- 
ship between national territories and agrarian territory is a subject for 
discussion in chapters 1 and 4. When I use states within the Republic 
of India to discuss times before they were formed, I do so only for 
the purpose of location; and this does not imply that these political 
boundaries had some incipient historical reality in the distant past. 
The historical formation of modern political regions is discussed in 
chapters 3 and 4. 

Many terms need to be handled carefully because they resonate 
with contemporary politics. When I refer to the Tamil, Telugu, or 
Kannada country, or to ‘the Marathi-speaking region’, I am simply 
referring to a widely recognised linguistic region, rather than to a 
linguistic state or cultural territory. The Tamil country, for instance, 
has always included many non-Tamil speakers, and much of its 
important literature is composed in languages other than Tamil. 
Referring to the south-eastern part of the coastal plain as ‘the Tamil 
coast’ does not mean that this is the only way or the best way to refer 
to this region; it is merely the most convenient for me here; and it also 
serves to remind us that agriculture occurs within culture. Similar 
caveats pertain to all sites with new meanings in cultural politics: I use 
‘Bombay’ rather than ‘Mumbai’ because it is more recognisable. I use 
‘Madras’ rather than ‘Chennai’, ‘Uttarakhand’ rather than ‘the Hima- 
layan districts of Uttar Pradesh’. Terms for agricultural landscapes that 
pertain across the whole period of my discussion are defined in the last 
section of chapter 1. These landscapes are not meant to displace other 
regional terminologies; they simply help to organise regional com- 
plexity for an agrarian historical geography. 

Personal names do not pose serious problems and their most 
commonly used forms are employed here. The names of groups, 
dynasties, and some events (such as the wars of 1857) are more 
troublesome. Group names often appear in personal names and they 
are almost always necessary for locating people in society. But in long 
stretches of historical time, groups move in and out of existence and 
group names change meaning very drastically. For instance, the term 
‘Rajput’ acquired its modern meaning from the sixteenth century 


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INTRODUCTION 


(chapter 3), but with suitable caveats, and despite the controversial 
character of origin stories, I use this terms to indicate group character- 
istics, if not subjective identity, over a longer period of time. Other 
group names — such as Vellala, Jat, Kunbi, Maratha, and Marava — have 
also changed meanings but they can be used in a similar way. When I 
refer to the distant past of social groups whose present identities are 
marked by such terms, and when I speculate as to their social 
composition or activities before modern times, I often discuss the past 
in terms that people in these groups will not endorse today. The 
creators of social identities recount collective experience in terms that 
become part of human experience, but historians can tell other tales to 
indicate other aspects of the past. This difference is not just one of 
perspective, or a feature of insider and outsider subject positions. 
Because history reshuffles and redefines perspectives, we need to trace 
the emergence of subject positions historically, and this is most 
difficult when they are in the making, which many are today. Quickly 
changing, hotly contested social identities pose the most serious 
problem, for instance with groups identified as Untouchables, Har- 
ijans, and Dalits. I use the term ‘untouchable’ here to refer to the caste 
condition of this lowest-ranked group in the varna scheme, and 
‘harijan’ and “dalit’ to refer to their representation and identity within 
modern political movements. Though the term ‘adivasi’ is preferable 
in our contemporary political context, the terminology of ‘tribes’ and 
‘tribal peoples’ is much more common in the literature; it captures a 
critical feature of the cultural distinctiveness of these groups, and it 
attaches to the official census and legal category of ‘scheduled tribe’. I 
use ‘adivasi’, therefore, to refer to tribal peoples in their contemporary 
condition of political activity; and these tribal mobilizations form a 
theme in agrarian history that is central for understanding long-term 
change. Using any term to refer to a social group or population has 
the additional pitfall of implying that everyone in a group is the same, 
that collective identities are built into individuals, and that terms 
which have by convention come to identify a group are used by 
people in the group to represent themselves. Group names are 
deployed for various political, cultural, and rhetorical ends and terms 
that are used here have various connotations which cannot be con- 
trolled by any tricks of phrasing. Similarly, terms for religious group- 
ings are quite contentious today, and I try to avoid using them except 
as general labels of cultural location. 


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CHAPTER 1 


AGRICULTURE 


Most of human history in South Asia is a feature of life on the land, 
but most documents that we use to write agrarian history concern the 
state. Kautilya’s Arthasastra set the tone by putting farming and 
herding under the heading of state revenue. Hundreds of thousands of 
stone and copper inscriptions appear in the first millennium of the 
Common Era (cE). Scattered across the land from Nepal to Sri Lanka, 
they documented agrarian conditions, but their purpose was rather to 
constitute medieval dynasties. After 1300, official documents narrate 
more and more powerful states. In the sixteenth century, Mughal 
sultans built South Asia’s first empire of agrarian taxation, and their 
revenue assessments, collections, and entitlements produced more data 
on agrarian conditions than any previous regime. In 1595, Abu-l 
Fazl’s Ai’n-i Akbari depicted agriculture in accounts of imperial 
finance. After 1760, English officials did the same. After 1870, 
nationalists rendered the country as part of the nation, and since 1947 
agriculture has been a measure of national development. For two 
millennia, elites have recorded agrarian facts to bolster regimes and to 
mobilise the opposition, so we inherit a huge archive documenting 
agrarian aspects of historical states. 

Over the centuries, however, agrarian history has also moved along 
in farming environments, outside the institutional structure of states, 
almost always connected in one way or another to state authority, but 
embedded basically in the everyday life of agricultural communities. 
Dynasties expand into agrarian space. Empires incorporate farm and 
forest, using various degrees and types of power, gaining here, losing 
there, adapting to local circumstances and modifying state institutions 
to embrace new regions of cultivation. Modern nations appropriate 
agrarian identity and territory. But polities condition agriculture 
without determining the logic of farming or the character of agrarian 
life; and country folk always seem to elude state control, even as some 
locals are sinews of state power in the village. Rulers and farmers — 
state power and agrarian social forces — interact historically and shape 
one another and, in this context, states tell only part of the story of the 


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agrarian past. Scholars need documentation produced outside the state 
and a critical perspective on official records to situate the historical 
imagination at the slippery articulation of state institutions and 
agrarian communities. 


HISTORICITY 


Maintaining this kind of perspective — seeing agrarian history askew of 
state power and reading official sources against the grain — becomes 
more difficult for the period after 1870, when documentation also 
becomes most plentiful. A respected modern scholarly canon and a 
vast modern official archive have colluded to make it difficult for 
scholars to imagine that agrarian history — as distinct from timeless, 
age-old, village tradition and peasant culture — has any real autonomy 
from the power of the state. Villagers, farmers, agricultural workers, 
forest cultivators, and pastoral peoples often appear in the dramas of 
history, but they most often appear to be moving on history’s stage in 
reaction to state activity or in response to elite initiative, obeying or 
resisting controls imposed upon them by state institutions and by 
powerful, autonomous elites. The rustic world — both in itself and for 
itself — appears in such accounts to be an ancient repetition. Agrarian 
folk appear as a negative mirror image of all that is urban, industrial, 
and modern; not as makers of history, but rather as inhabitants of 
history, endowed with mentalities and memories which can be recov- 
ered, but not with creative powers to transform their world. Such an 
appearance took hold in the nineteenth century, as a very long trend 
of increasing state power in South Asia accelerated dramatically under 
British rule. A turning point occurred around 1870, by which time the 
institutions of imperial bureaucracy, ideologies of development, and 
analytical sciences of management had been combined with industrial 
technology to form the material and cultural context for agrarian life 
that we call modernity. Until then, official documents still recorded 
aspects of agrarian societies that eluded state control and official 
understanding, but, from this point onward, texts render the country- 
side through the lens of the modern state’s minute and comprehensive 
managerial empiricism. Agrarian sites now appear as standardised 
objects of administration, policy debate, and political struggle. Idio- 
syncratic local histories and old agrarian territories were in effect 
buried by imperial modernity under mountains of homogeneous, 


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official data, as villages, towns, districts, and provinces became stan- 
dard units for conventional studies of politics, economics, culture, and 
society. The non-modern quality of the agrarian past became quaint 
stuff for gazetteers and folklore, irrelevant for history except as a 
reflection of archaic peasant memory and tradition — marginalia — cut 
off from the modern historical mainstream. 

Modernity’s understanding of the ‘agrarian’ focused first and fore- 
most on matters of state policy, agricultural production, law and 
order, and resistance and rebellion. Agrarian history appeared first as a 
chronicle of state policy, whose impact was measured in the endless 
dance of numbers on agrarian taxation, rent, debt, cropping, output, 
living standards, technology, demography, land holding, contracts, 
marketing, and other money matters. For the city folk who worked in 
government and in the urban public sphere — the brains of modernity 
— rustic localities became alien, peripheral, and abstract. All the places, 
experiences, and circumstances ‘out there’ in the country became 
significant primarily as indicators of conditions and trends in modern 
state territory. To comprehend the country, modernity invented 
statistics and theories to capture the basic principles of agricultural 
production and rural society in parsimonious assumptions, models, 
and ideal types. Compact and comprehensive data informed theories 
of caste society, village tradition, capitalist transformations, agricul- 
tural improvement, and the market economy; these were formalised 
and packed into portable textbooks and handbooks. Farm statistics 
rolled off government presses. Official manuals codified agrarian 
administration. All things agrarian entered the book of the modern 
state. Agrarian facts entered modern minds through policy debates, 
statistical studies, guide books, travel maps, law reports, ethnography, 
news, and theories of modernity and tradition. 

In this context, the urban middle classes invented an agrarian 
discourse that was preoccupied with matters of public policy. By 
1870, agrarian conditions appeared most influentially in statistics that 
measured economic progress and government efforts to develop 
agriculture. By then, policy debates about rural India excited Indian 
middle-class intellectuals for whom modernity involved a cultural 
opposition between their own urbanity and the rural, rustic, tradition 
of the village. Already in the 1850s, when Karl Marx sat in London 
using East India Company dispatches to write about India for readers 
of the New York Tribune, a modern world information network was 


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beginning to span urban sites of English literacy running from East 
Asia to Europe and the Americas; and all the English-speaking middle 
classes had soon formed a broadly similar sensibility toward agrarian 
issues, which emphasised the state’s responsibility to facilitate the 
expansion of private production and wealth. Thus a book like Robert 
Mulhall’s The Progress of the World in Arts, Agriculture, Commerce, 
Manufacture, Instruction, Railways, and Public Wealth, published in 
London (in 1880) came rapidly to Philadelphia and New York; and it 
described economic progress in terms that typified public discourse in 
British India. Though many urban intellectuals in South Asia knew 
the countryside personally — as landowners, merchants, bankers, and 
lawyers, and by their own family experience — their public discussions 
and formulations of agrarian knowledge did not highlight their own 
direct, intimate knowledge. Their sense of agrarian territory rested 
firmly on official knowledge. By 1880, competing interest groups 
were vocal in national policy debates concerning agriculture in 
Europe, America, and territories of the British empire spilling over 
into Africa, Australia, and the Caribbean,' and agrarian issues made a 
good public showing in British India during policy debates about 
taxation, land law, money lending, tenancy reform, tariffs and trade, 
irrigation expenditure, commodity crops (sugar, tobacco, indigo, 
cotton, tea, and opium), bonded labour, indenture, famines, land 
alienation, cooperative credit, survey and settlement, agricultural 
sciences, and forestry. More than any direct experience of village life, 
these debates informed the evolution of national ideas about the 
historical substance of agrarian South Asia. 

The modern intelligentsia found their countryside in the interwoven 
discourses of empire and nationality. In the major urban centres of 
British India, national leaders among the Indian middle classes shared 
with Europeans an urban identity, alienated from the countryside. But 
at the same time, imperial ideology lumped all the natives together as 
native subjects, so India’s political nationality evolved as intellectuals 
brought town and country together in the abstract opposition of 
‘Indian’ and ‘British’. This enabled Indian nationalists to produce a 
distinctively national sense of agrarian territory inside the British 
empire. Nationalism protected the cultural status of the urban middle 


' Niek Koning, The Failure of Agrarian Capitalism: Agrarian Politics in the UK, 


Germany, the Netherlands and the USA, 1846-1919, London, 1994, pp. 167-9. 


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classes as it united peoples of India against the oppressions of 
colonialism. By promulgating modern ideas about religious commu- 
nity, racial identity, linguistic identity, national development, and 
political progress, middle-class leaders made the foreign character of 
British rule the central issue in agrarian history. They subsumed the 
history of all the national land and all the people of the nation into a 
unitary history of the Indian nation. Modern nationality made the 
Indian middle classes both equal to and superior to, both like and not 
like, their country cousins; equally native but more knowledgeable, 
articulate, international, and modern — ready for leadership. Educated 
leaders of the nation could speak for the country, on behalf of country 
folk. As a literate voice for illiterate people, a national intelligentsia 
could present agricultural problems to the public and represent the 
inarticulate ‘rural masses’. National voices expressed a distinctively 
middle-class middleness by translating (vernacular) village tradition 
into the (English) language of modernity. They made the problems of 
the country into a critique of colonial policy so as to make agrarian 
South Asia a colonial problem, calling out for national attention. By 
the 1850s, texts written along these lines appear in Calcutta, Bombay, 
and Madras; and from the 1870s, a national agrarian imagination 
formed among authors such as Dadabhai Naoroji, Bankim Chandra 
Chattopadhyay, Romesh Chandra Dutt, and M. G. Ranade. After 
1870, novels, short stories, plays, poetry, and academic studies 
depicted the national countryside more and more frequently in a set of 
iconic images. By the 1920s, national agrarian studies were institution- 
alised in universities. National culture had subsumed agrarian terri- 
tories. 

Between 1870 and 1930, agrarian South Asia assumed its modern 
intellectual appearance and acquired its own history. Old orientalist 
and official knowledge — from the days of Company Raj - were still 
basic. But the conjuncture of famines (and, in Bengal, devastating 
cyclones) with the rise of the national intelligentsia in the 1870s, 1880s, 
and 1890s made a deep, lasting impression. Agrarian localism and 
diversity dissolved into a national history of endemic village distress, 
calamity, and poverty that demanded urgent attention from progres- 
sive agents of development. After 1877, stereotypes of famine spread 
widely and quickly. To raise funds for his relief organisation in India, 
George Lambert rushed to America in 1898 to publish a book entitled 
India, Horror-Stricken Empire (containing a full Account of the 


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Famine, Plague, and Earthquake of 1896-7. Including a complete 
narration of Relief Work through the Home and Foreign Relief 
Commission). In 1913, a student, Alexander Loveday, wrote a prize- 
winning essay at Peterhouse, Cambridge, declaring sophomorically: 
‘Poverty in England, or America, or Germany is a question of the 
distribution of wealth ... [whereas in] India, it is a question of 
production.’ Loveday went on to explain India’s woes by citing the 
quality of soil, weather, technology, and agricultural practices; and, 
like Lambert, he opined that only massive state investment and relief, 
supported by enlightened, generous, public contributions, could 
reduce the suffering of the poor in British India.* By 1900, it was 
firmly planted in the mind of modernity that South Asian villagers live 
perpetually at the edge of death and starvation, on the brink of 
catastrophe. 

In the 1840s, we can see the early beginnings of a modern develop- 
ment discourse (which would provide a strong narrative centre for 
agrarian historical studies) in petitions by critics of the East India 
Company against excessive, coercive taxation, and in petitions by 
Arthur Cotton for increased government irrigation expenditure. In 
1869, Lord Mayo argued for the foundation of an imperial department 
of agriculture in terms that indicate the tone of public discussion: 


For generations to come the progress of India . . . must be directly dependent on 
her progress in agriculture . . . There is perhaps no country in the world in which 
the State has so immediate and direct an interest in such questions . . . Throughout 
the greater part of India, every measure for the improvement of the land enhances 
the value of the property of the State. The duties which in England are performed 
by a good landlord fall in India, in a great measure, upon the government. 
Speaking generally, the only Indian landlord who can command the requisite 
knowledge is the state. 


Nationalists used Mayo’s argument against his government. They 
argued that Indian prosperity had become poverty under the British. 
Famine deaths had increased. Excess taxation had ruined agriculture. 
Land settlements had punished investors. Deindustrialisation had 
forced workers onto the land. State expenditure for improvement was 


2. Lambert’s book was published by the Mennonite Publishing Company, Elkhart, India. 
A. Lovejoy, B.A., The History and Economics of Indian Famines (Le Baz Prize Essay, 1913), 
first published, 1914; reprinted by Usha Publishing, Delhi, 1985, pp. 5-8. 

> Elizabeth Manak, ‘Formulation of Agricultural Policy in Imperial India, 1872-1920: A 
Case Study of Madras Presidency’, Ph.D. dissertation, University of Hawaii, 1979, p. 27. 


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paltry and the government’s claim to be working in the interest of the 
people was at best hypocritical. 

The national agrarian scene became a ground for debate, research, 
and political action; and in these formative decades, state institutions 
and urban intellectuals invented the modern sciences of development. 
Engineers had already captured the field of irrigation. Soil scientists, 
chemists, biologists, and botanists did research that would be orga- 
nised under the Imperial Council for Agricultural Research and 
catalogued extensively in 1929 by the Royal Commission on Agricul- 
ture. State scientists made British India into a laboratory for breeding 
new crop varieties fifty years before the green revolution. Economists 
studied mountains of official statistics on food supplies, prices, 
commodity crops (indigo, opium, sugarcane, tea, coffee, jute, tobacco, 
groundnuts, wheat, and rice), farm incomes, investment, and produc- 
tivity; and they also developed an original theory of Indian economics, 
which stimulated the first round of village studies in the 1920s. The 
science of Indian economics was described authoritatively by Radha- 
kamal Mukerjee, in 1916, in a textbook that began with a model of a 
traditional village economy disrupted by heavy tax demands, private 
property laws, voracious money lending, and capitalist commerci- 
alism, all imposed by the British.* Commercialisation loomed large for 
the early economists and, drawing on data going back to the 1840s, 
their studies often focused on problems of coercion. This focus was 
logical because their model of a traditional village economy did not 
include any indigenous commercial impulse or history, so that coer- 
cion would seem necessary to initiate agrarian commodity production 
and taxation. Forced sales, bonded labour, coerced revenue collections, 
and excess land alienation were seen as colonial pathologies, producing 
poverty and needing to be studied and remedied. Freedom from 
colonialism became widely identified with freedom from all the 
coercion and disruption of capitalism. Basic elements of the national 
model of village India were not unique to India, and Gandhian ideas 
of village self-sufficiency, solidarity, and harmony were also found in 
pre-modern Britain, for instance by Gilbert Slater, the first professor 
of Indian Economics at the University of Madras. Like his contempor- 
aries, H. H. Mann and Radhakamal Mukerjee, Slater saw the village 
economy in Europe and Asia as traditionally stable and coherent; this 


+ The Foundation of Indian Economics, Bombay, 1916. 


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provided what Mann would call the ‘social framework of agriculture’ 
— what Karl Polanyi would later describe as the ‘embeddedness’ of the 
economy in traditional society. Using this broadly accepted theory of 
indigenous, village India, many economists sought to bolster village 
tradition while making villagers richer at the same time, to make 
modernisation and development more authentically and effectively 
Indian. Gandhian and Nehruvian ideas about Indian modernity had 
the same scientific roots. 

By 1930, historians had also nationalised agrarian India. But they 
took a different path. A century before the convocation of the Indian 
National Congress, Indologists and orientalists - Indians and Euro- 
peans — were composing texts that would inspire the national imagina- 
tion. In the middle-class college curriculum, history informed nation- 
ality. R. C. Dutt was a towering figure. He responded to W. W. 
Hunter’s (1868) call for ‘rural history’ with his own study of Bengal 
peasant conditions (1874); he wrote a serious study of ancient India 
(1896); and then he wrote the first nationalist history of colonial 
agrarian policy (1908). With Dutt, history joined the national move- 
ment, and in the 1920s it became a national ground for debate and 
exhortation. History books discussed all types of national issues and 
formed a repository for competing accounts of national character.® In 
this context, in 1929, William Moreland published the first academic 
monograph on agrarian history, The Agrarian System of Moslem 
India.® Dutt and Naoroji had set the stage by recounting the greatness 
of classical India and the depredations of British rule, and Moreland 
confronted the nationalist critique of British land policies with a study 
of pre-British north India, going back to the fourteenth century, to 
argue that old elements from India’s past explained its agricultural 
backwardness, not British rule. He countered the national glorification 
of Indian tradition with an account of pre-colonial oppression, which 
put Muslim rulers specifically in a bad light. The ‘idea of agricultural 


5 See David Ludden, ‘History (Pre-Colonial)’, in Joseph W. Elder, Ainslee T. Embree, 
and Edward C. Dimock, eds., India’s Worlds and U.S. Scholars: 1947-1997, Delhi, 1998, 
pp. 265-82. 

© Intellectual connections across the wider world of historical thinking are indicated by 
the fact that disruptions of modernity and ‘the long-term evolution of rural society from the 
Middle Ages to the present’ were also the foundational themes in rural history in England 
and France. The public presentation of Marc Bloch’s long-term study of French rural society 
began with a series of lectures in Oslo in 1929. See Richard Kerr, “The Nature of Rural 
History’, in Richard Kerr, ed., Themes in Rural History of the Western World, Ames, 1993, 


PP- 4—5- 


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development’, he said, ‘was already present in the fourteenth century, 
but the political and social environment was unusually unfavourable 
to its fruition’. Specifically, he said, from the Delhi sultanates 
(1206-1526) through the Mughal empire (1556-1707), ‘two figures 
stand out as normally masters of the peasants’ fate . . . the [revenue] 
farmer and the assignee’ who together waged ‘a barren struggle to 
divide, rather than. . . to increase, the annual produce of the country’, 
a ‘legacy of loss, which Moslem administrators left to their successors 
and which is still so far from final liquidation’.” 

By 1930, agrarian history entered national policy debates and, ever 
since then, the writing of agrarian history has meshed with political 
disputation. Moreland pushed a line of argument against landlordism 
that was just gaining momentum when Jawaharlal Nehru became 
President of the All-India Congress Committee in 1930. He an- 
nounced a radical turn in politics by writing this: 
the great poverty and misery of the Indian People are due, not only to foreign 
exploitation in India but also to the economic structure of society, which the alien 
rulers support so that their exploitation may continue. In order therefore to remove 
this poverty and misery and to ameliorate the condition of the masses, it is 


essential to make revolutionary changes in the present economic and social 
structure of society and to remove the gross inequalities.® 


Nehru married history and politics; he used history politically the way 
Gandhi used philosophy. When he wrote The Discovery of India, in 
1944, he found many lessons for the nation and its leaders in Indian 
history, going back to ancient times, and by 1947 Nehru’s official 
version of agrarian history was etched into the Congress party plat- 
form: 


Though poverty is widespread in India, it is essentially a rural problem, caused 
chiefly by overpressure on land and a lack of other wealth-producing occupations. 
India, under British rule, has been progressively ruralised, many of her avenues of 
work and employment closed, a vast mass of the population thrown on the land, 
which has undergone continuous fragmentation, till a very large number of 
holdings have become uneconomic. It is essential, therefore, that the problem of 
the land should be dealt with in all its aspects. Agriculture has to be improved on 
scientific lines and industry has to be developed rapidly in its various forms . . . so 
as not only to produce wealth but also to absorb people from the land ... 


7 William Moreland, The Agrarian System of Moslem India, Cambridge, 1929; reprinted 
Delhi, 1968, pp. 205-6. 

8 A. Moin Zaidi, ed., A Tryst with Destiny: A Study of Economic Policy Resolutions of the 
Indian National Congress Passed During the last 100 years, New Delhi, 1985, p. 54, italics 
added. 


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Planning must lead to maximum employment, indeed to the employment of every 
able-bodied person.? 


During the half-century after 1947, agrarian South Asia changed 
dramatically. I discuss this in chapter 4, but, to explain my approach in 
this book, I need to note that, during the 1950s and 1960s, state 
institutions charged with national development dominated politics and 
thinking about agrarian history. In these decades, historians focused 
primarily on state policy. Ranajit Guha’s A Rule of Property for 
Bengal and Irfan Habib’s The Agrarian System of Mughal India both 
appeared in 1963, and they represent a historical perspective from 
which official statements of state ideology seem to determine state 
policy and to generate logical effects everywhere that policy reigns. 
The nationality of the countryside under British rule — its national 
unity as agrarian territory — seemed to be self-evident in these decades; 
and it was described beautifully in A. R. Desai’s The Social Back- 
ground of Indian Nationalism (1948), and many other books. But 
during the 1960s — the decade of Nehru’s death, of the early green 
revolution, and of continuing struggles for land reform — arguments 
began to gain ground among historians to the effect that dominant 
state ideologies do not necessarily determine the content or conduct of 
state policy; and, in addition, that states do not dictate the course of 
history. How ideas about history changed so radically in the 1960s 
and 1970s remains to be studied. Certainly historians of South Asia 
expanded their appreciation of the diversity of the subcontinent and of 
the longevity of its disparate agrarian regions. The national unity of 
colonial experience came unravelled with empirical work that chal- 
lenged the arguments put forth in the 1947 Congress platform. 
Historians began to emphasise the local diversity of social forces and 
political alliances in British India. Regional diversity became more 
politically prominent after the 1956 states’ reorganisation, the rise of 
non-Congress state governments, and the independence of Bangladesh 
in 1971. An intellectual rupture also occurred in the paradigm of 
national development, which polarised agrarian studies. The theory 
and practice enshrined in the green revolution — based on state- 
sponsored science and technology — faced opposition from theorists 
and movements promoting revolutionary transformations based on 
worker and peasant mobilisation, a red revolution. During the last 


° A. Moin Zaidi, A Tryst with Destiny, p. 72. 


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decade of anti-imperialist war in Vietnam, historians discovered a long 
history of agrarian radicalism in South Asia, and more evidence 
appeared to substantiate diverse, contrary theories of agrarian history. 
By 1980, agrarian history had moved away from the state toward 
society. Though modern history remained officially confined to the 
colonial period, agrarian history continued to reach back into the 
medieval period and to extend to the present day; and it continued to 
reach beyond the limits of South Asia in its concern with poverty, 
revolution, imperialism, and other Third World issues. By 1985, some 
writing in agrarian history was still concerned primarily with national 
history, but more and more work focused on local, subaltern, peasant, 
pastoral, and tribal experience. When Ranajit Guha’s first volume of 
Subaltern Studies appeared in 1981 and his Elementary Aspects of 
Peasant Insurgency in Colonial India arrived in 1983, it was clear that 
a major shift in historical thinking had occurred since 1963. In the 
1980s and 1990s, the study of the state was further displaced by 
studies of social power. This trend was not confined to South Asia. 
The historical profession in general turned away from politics and 
economics toward society and culture. In these decades, national states 
also lost power in their own national territories as structural adjust- 
ment and economic liberalisation changed the role of the state in 
development. Nationalism became an object of academic and cultural 
criticism. State-centred development strategies came under attack; 
people-centred, grassroots development became prominent. Environ- 
mentalism, feminism, and indigenous people’s movements challenged 
old development agendas. Again, South Asia was not alone. A modern 
world regime of economic development which began to emerge in the 
1920s — centred on the complementary opposition of capitalism and 
socialism — crumbled in the 1980s (though some of its old players — the 
World Bank, the IMF, huge foundations, multinational corporations, 
and big capitalist countries — are still thriving today). In South Asia, 
new social movements arose as the Congress Party declined. Battles in 
Punjab, Jharkhand, Telangana, Bihar, Jaffna, Kashmir, Assam, the 
Chittagong Hill Tracts, and elsewhere turned attention toward re- 
gional and local issues. Many scholars who would have been looking 
for the roots of revolution during the 1970s turned instead in the 
1990s to localised, often doggedly individualistic resistance among 
subaltern peoples. Historians began to look at both capitalist and 
socialist states with a new critical eye, ‘from the bottom up’, which 


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gave the state a new kind of theoretical meaning. The state now came 
to be studied not so much from the inside — from the centre of state 
policy thinking — as from the margin, from points of critical perspec- 
tive outside the state and its policy consciousness. 

These intellectual trends have left scholars in a better position to 
explore social power in state territories and everyday life. We can now 
use history to illuminate contemporary conditions and bring history 
down to the present, rather than stopping history in 1947. This book 
considers a long history of social power in many agrarian environ- 
ments rather than treating agrarian history as a feature of nationality, 
nationalism, or nationhood. It combines research in a number of 
different theoretical paradigms to form a comparative history of 
regions and localities. It does not attempt to represent authentic local 
voices in agrarian societies, subaltern or otherwise. Recent efforts to 
capture subaltern voices are salutary, but they pinpoint historical 
situations rather than describing agrarian change, and they have little 
to say about patterns of diversity. Everyday life obscures patterns of 
change across generations and across landscapes of disparate local 
circumstances. As we accumulate more accounts of local experience, 
we need to step back periodically to assess patterns and trends, and 
that is my intention here. Moreover, studies of existing consciousness 
do not confront the veracity of ideas about the agrarian past, and old 
ideas tend to survive in popular discourse long after scholars have 
shown them to be untrue. For instance, a fallacious assumption still 
remains that basic stability characterised the agrarian world before 
colonialism. This sturdy idea leads many authors, even today, to 
imagine the nineteenth century as it was theorised by Karl Marx, R. C. 
Dutt, and Radhakamal Mukerjee, as a time of radical disjuncture and 
discontinuity imposed on stable village society, culture, and economy 
by European conquest and colonial domination. Agrarian history has 
other stories to tell. 


SEASONS 


South Asia includes well over a billion people (a quarter of the world’s 
population), and eight of ten live in places classified officially as ‘rural’, 
surrounded by agriculture. A much smaller proportion work on the 
land and non-agricultural employment is growing rapidly, but a 
substantial majority still depend on agriculture for their livelihood. 


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Agrarian history is not just a local matter, therefore, even though 
farming is always local in its everyday conduct: the agrarian past has 
conditioned states as well as most other social institutions. For 
historical study, we can define agriculture as the social organisation of 
physical powers to produce organic material for human use. Animal 
and forest products fall within this definition, so agriculture includes 
not only farming but also animal husbandry, pastoralism, fishing, and 
harvesting the forest (though not mining, manufacturing, trade, trans- 
portation, banking, ritual activity, writing history, and other related 
occupations). This broad definition is useful because many specialised 
types of production are tightly intertwined in agrarian environments 
and we need one term to embrace many specialists even as we consider 
their situations separately. To historicise agriculture, we need to map 
its complexity as a social phenomenon involving the daily exertion of 
energy and intelligence by many individuals. Agrarian space is at once 
political, social, and cultural. It is political because power and resis- 
tance constitute work on the land, effect control over assets, and 
distribute products. Farms are also sites of culture. As the words 
‘culture’ and ‘cultivation’ indicate, farming is embedded within powers 
to ‘civilise’ land, and agriculture entails symbolic and dramatic activity 
that might seem to have little to do with farming — including religious 
rituals, urban spectacles, and even history writing. Agriculture is 
obviously economic in the original household sense, but also in the 
modern sense that farms represent individual rationality and sustain 
national wealth. Farming is full of input-output rationality and 
calculations that do not necessarily obey the economists. Farms are 
physically built into specific bits of land to create landscapes that 
farmers change over time, so farming falls into the realm of natural and 
physical science in addition to social science. No one academic 
discipline controls the study of agriculture. 

We can bring together all the various dimensions of agriculture by 
focusing on landscapes of social power. Farming is the point of 
contact between the human powers that organise agriculture and the 
changing natural environment. No other occupation changes the land 
so much as farming. It is the major engine of ecological change in 
human history. State institutions enclose and influence social power in 
agricultural territory, and, though historians often appreciate the 
changes wrought by states on human living conditions, the powers of 
transformation in agriculture come primarily from the activity of 


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farming itself. Farms change the land and produce new possibilities for 
the future. Agriculture articulates broadly with nature and civilisation, 
but its specificity as a historical phenomenon comes from the character 
of farming as a social activity. Other kinds of social action occur on 
the land, so decisions about their conduct are often located con- 
sciously within a specific physical setting, but none more than 
farming. And none is more dedicated to its time and place in the 
seasons of the year. In many other types of social activity, the land 
provides symbolism, context. But every act in farming directly 
implicates the soil, so that nature is an active participant — in a 
particular place — from which farming cannot be detached, and local 
conditions shape the conduct and outcome of human activity in 
farming, in two senses: nature is perceived as an agent in farming by 
farmers themselves, within culture; and nature also works outside 
culture — behind its back — because seeds, rain, and soil, like human 
bodies, have logics to which people must simply adjust. Agrarian 
cultures accept and rationalise this behind-the-back quality of nature 
in their famous pragmatism, experimentalism, fatalism, and common 
sense. 

Farming mingles social labour with nature, like the rain with the 
soil, and, in the process, physical and cognitive aspects of agriculture 
give the land cultural meaning, conditioning how people think about 
landscapes. Agricultural landscapes emerge over long periods of time 
from farming activity that conditions the natural world of human 
aesthetics. Agriculture creates thereby a cultural text for the human 
experience of nature. Farming defines nature, how it feels and looks in 
practice. Agriculture is civilisation at work on the land, humanising 
nature and naturalising the powers that human societies exert upon 
nature. Territorial concepts, powers, and social forms are built into 
landscapes to define the land as an agricultural aspect of nature. But 
agriculture also changes nature to create the physical characteristics of 
spaces in which people carry on social life, changing over time how 
people think about their world. Agriculture is humanity sculpting the 
earth, designing habitats, making a landscape as a kind of architecture, 
and producing symbolic domains that form the spatial attributes of 
civilisation. 

Farms mark time at the point of contact between human powers 
and natural forces outside human control. Agrarian history unfolds in 
the seasons of everyday life in agricultural societies. Farming moves to 


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the rhythm of holiday seasons, wedding seasons, rainy seasons, and 
seasons of fruits, vegetables, and grains; seasons of war, famine, and 
state pageants; and seasons of opportunity and hunger, which embrace 
whole territories of civilisation. Seasonal time seems to be cyclical, 
because ideas about seasons are modelled on patterns of natural 
repetition. But seasonality is also historical, because its cultural 
construction moves back to the future, as people predict and gamble 
based on their remembered experience. The understanding of seasonal 
patterns comes from observation and past predictions, apprehensions 
of the future; it encodes memory and evidence from past events. The 
regularity of seasonal rhythms — which define the calendar of human 
activities in each farm setting — allows investment to occur in one 
season with the hope and probabilistic expectation that dividends will 
accrue in the next. Correct action today creates future dearth or 
prosperity, depending on what the future brings. Lost opportunities 
and bad times can hurt for years. Understanding today’s condition 
always requires dredging up the past, to see what went right or wrong. 
Any loss or accumulation represents the yield of the past. The cyclical 
quality of seasons thus encourages thinking about the future and the 
past, together, and calculations of past yield for making future- 
oriented decisions. Family incomes, state revenues, and capitalist 
profit depend on the predictability and the unpredictability of price 
movements across the seasons. 

Agrarian time has physical substance and human emotion. Its 
content arises in part from the influence of seasons on the timing and 
the outcome of decision-making and in part from cultural experience. 
We know when we have entered a new kind of territory when the 
season has a different character, when local wisdom treats the same 
time of year very differently. The synchronisation of social life with 
nature means that big decisions must take the season into account; and 
decisions can affect the future drastically. War, migration, industriali- 
sation, state building, irrigation building, urbanisation, and rebellion 
represent decisions by many individuals in seasons of their own 
agrarian space; and decisions accumulate to alter the experience and 
reality of seasonality. The flood, the famine, the drought, the plague, 
and all the big events in agrarian life are always connected culturally 
and experientially to the nature of the harvest and to human entitle- 
ments to the fruit of the land. Every year, a harvest consists of 
perishable produce with a limited, predictable life span, which not 


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only feeds people in the present but also influences the future size, 
health, and activity of a population; and the harvest also determines 
prices for a period of time. Harvests affect prices very widely even in 
industrial economies and thus influence social experience and ex- 
change relations throughout society; so that harvests influence the 
building and repair of cities and also the conduct of war, rituals, 
weddings, manufacturing, and commerce. Predictions and plans for 
future production on the farm are tied up tightly with seasonal 
planning for marriages and other events in the production of kinship 
and community. Plans for new planting and farm investments are tied 
up not only with predictions about rain but also with political gossip 
and economic prognostication. Daily decisions on the farm are 
inflected by big decisions in capital cities, where rulers need funds and 
support from the countryside. Historically, therefore, a great many 
elements influence the size, character, and feeling of agricultural space, 
in addition to the influence of states, empires, and nations. 

Seasons connect farming time to natural time and divinity. Agricul- 
ture coordinates heaven and earth. Repetitive seasons — readable in the 
skies — display signs that forecast and stimulate the conduct and 
outcome of many kinds of social activity which intersect in farming. 
Agriculture’s seasonality provides a temporal pattern of predictability, 
calculation, expectation, and planning for agrarian society as a whole. 
Seasonal uncertainty likewise provides a temporal framework in which 
to calculate risk and provisioning: it provides a temporal logic for 
social exertions of control, cooperation, solidarity, and initiatives 
against catastrophe. Agriculture constitutes a history of experience 
that informs thinking about survival and prosperity, investment and 
success. Each season is a day in the life of all the many social 
institutions that intermingle with farming in agricultural territories. 

The physical quality of seasons in South Asia forms a huge 
transition zone between the aridity of Southwest Asia and the 
humidity of Southeast Asia. As we travel east from the high, dry 
Sulaiman slopes, across the arid Peshawar valley, the Salt Range, the 
Punjab and the Indus valley, and then down the increasingly humid 
Gangetic plain to the double delta of the Ganga and Brahmaputra 
rivers, we move from arid lands dotted by fields of wheat and millet to 
a vast flatland of watery paddy and fish farms. Looking outward from 
South Asia to the west and east, we see its distinctive pattern of 
monsoons giving way in Afghanistan to a temperate zone pattern of 


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hot summers and cold winters, with less rain all year, and giving way 
in Myanmar to the humid tropics’ cycle of long, heavy rainy seasons 
with high average temperature and humidity. Chittagong is ecologi- 
cally on the borderland of Southeast Asia; Kabul lies at the border of 
Central Asia. The sun moves the months of humidity and aridity that 
define agricultural time in South Asia. Winter cold and summer heat 
are more pronounced in the north, where they influence the extent of 
wheat cultivation, but otherwise do not have major implications for 
the activity of farming, except at high altitudes. The same crops can be 
grown in all the plains and valleys of South Asia with suitable inputs 
of water. Temperature regimes differ somewhat but we find the same 
seasonal pattern in Kashmir, Assam, the Konkan Coast, and Sri Lanka 
- all rice-growing regions. North-south differences are less pro- 
nounced in South Asia than across comparable distances between 
Scotland and Italy, Beijing and Hong Kong, or New England and 
Florida. Everywhere (except at very high altitudes), the calendar and 
historic rhythms of farming in South Asia are pegged not to tempera- 
ture but rather to moisture. In general terms that apply to the long 
expanse of agrarian history, the seasonal pattern can be described as a 
cyclical narrative, roughly as follows. The physical substance of the 
seasons organises a vast range of variation in South Asia and sets it 
apart from other agricultural environments in Eurasia. 

In January, the sun heads north across the sky from its winter home 
south of the equator, as the air dries out and heats up. Days lengthen 
and winter rains dissipate. April and May are the hottest months when 
it almost never rains. In June, Himalayan snow-melt gorges the rivers 
in the north and the summer monsoon begins. The leading edge of the 
monsoon moves north-west from May through July, from Myanmar 
into Afghanistan. By late May, the monsoon has hit the Andaman 
Islands and Sri Lanka, and then it hits Kerala and Chittagong at about 
the same time. The earliest, heaviest, and longest monsoon season 
engulfs the far south (Sri Lanka and Kerala), the north-east (from 
Bihar to Assam and Chittagong), and the central-eastern regions of 
Orissa, Chhattisgarh, and Jharkhand. These are the most tropical 
regions with the most densely tangled natural forest cover and the 
most extensive jungles. At the summer solstice, when the sun begins to 
move south again, the summer monsoon will have touched all of 
South Asia. But it provides the least rain to the arid western plains and 
the north-west, which have the shortest, driest rainy season; and it 


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brings very little rain to the interior of the central peninsula, which lies 
in the rain shadow of the Western Ghats. These are dry regions of 
savannah, scrub, and desert. As the days begin to shorten, from July 
onward, the rains continue but scatter more and more, week by week, 
though it can still be raining periodically in October, when a second 
season of rain begins, called the winter monsoon, which pours 
unpredictably on the south-east and north-east and often brings 
cyclones off the Bay of Bengal to attack Andhra and Bangladesh.'° 
This fickle second monsoon lasts into January, when five months of 
dry days begin again. 

The seasonal calendar is marked by festivals, astrological signs, and 
natural phenomena which articulate agriculture with a vast array of 
social activities. People enjoy the cool of December and January. As 
the sun moves north and the summer sets in, the sun becomes harsh, 
hot days accumulate, water bodies evaporate, the earth hardens, and 
farm work slackens. It is time for travel, migration, and moving herds 
to water and pasture in the hills; time for hunger, cholera and 
smallpox, skin and eye infections, malnutrition, dehydration, crying 
babies, and scavenging; time for trading and transporting, stealing, 
guarding, and fighting; time for rituals of honour and spectacle, and 
for building, repair, loans, and debt, sometimes desperate commit- 
ments that will influence social relations of agriculture for seasons to 
come. The dry months of the year are full of preparations for the next 
rainy season, sustained by the immediate yield of the harvest. 

Crops move off the land at different times of the year, but most 
profusely during the second and third months after the start of each 
monsoon, and the biggest harvest period is September—December. For 
example, in the north-east, with its high rainfall running from June 
into January, there are three major harvest seasons. Rabi crops are 
mostly rice but include wheat, barley, and pulses in Bihar, and the rabi 
season covers March, April, and May. Bhadoi crops, which include 
millets in Bihar and Chota Nagpur in addition to rice, arrive in 
August-September. The aghani season — called kharif in north India - 
covers November, December, and part of January and brings the great 
harvest of the year. Winter rice, called aman, ‘was incomparably the 


10 Damaging cyclones were recorded in Bengal in 1831, 1832, 1833, 1840, 1848, 1850, 
1851, 1864, 1867, 1874, 1876, 1885, and 1942. The worst by far were in 1864, 1867, 1874, and 
1942. See Arabinda Samanta, ‘Cyclone Hazards and Community Response’, Economic and 
Political Weekly, 20 September 1997, p. 2425. 


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most important and often the sole crop grown in the districts of 
Bengal, Bihar and Orissa’ at the end of the nineteenth century, 
covering almost half the total land under cultivation.'! By contrast, in 
the dry hills of western India, for the Bhils in the Narmada River 
basin, at the western tip of the Vindhya mountains, the agricultural 
year begins abruptly in May, after long, hot months without rain or 
local work, and now ‘people cannot sleep in the afternoon’ because it 
would ‘appear indolent, and nature bestows her bounty only on those 
who bring it their industry as tribute’. Anticipating rain, ‘people who 
had migrated to the plains return home for the start of work’ and 
harrowing and planting start with the rain in June. Harvesting maize 
and bajra millets begins in August, and harvesting jowar millets and 
groundnuts continues through October. In November and December, 
‘people sell chula, groundnuts, and other cash crops, carrying them to 
the traders’.'* After every harvest, crops take new life in the realm of 
circulation. They assume new material forms as movable measures and 
as piled-up stores of grain, fruit, pulses, and vegetables, in stocks, 
carts, trucks, bags, head loads, and shops. Crops become food, cuisine, 
feasts, stocks, clothing, and adornments; they realise their symbolic 
potential as gifts, offerings, tribute, largess, shares, alms, commodities, 
and credit advances. In this realm, in the season of circulation, 
investments by the buyers of farm produce, made in anticipation of 
the harvest, when crops were in the ground, seek dividends — because 
prices drop at harvest time and then rise predictably as the heat 
prolongs, and, by June, predictions about the coming monsoon also 
begin to affect prices. Speculators seek returns accordingly. Agrarian 
wealth arises from the social powers that articulate these two great 
seasons — of cultivation and circulation — in the life of agricultural 
produce. The calendar differs for animal and vegetable products, for 
fish, fruit, and forest products, and for different grains in every region; 
but everywhere, it moves to the rhythm of the sun, the rain, and the 
harvest cycle. Commodity prices and markets — and thus profits and 
revenues for business and government — move along the temporal path 
of agricultural seasonality; and, today, farm seasons influence the 


1 Malabika Chakravarti, ‘The Lethal Connection: Winter Rice, Poverty and Famine in 
Late Nineteenth Century Bengal’, Calcutta Historical Journal, 18, 1, 1996, 66-95. 

12 Amita Baviskar, ‘Displacement and the Bhilala Tribals of the Narmada Valley’, in Jean 
Dreze, Meera Samson, and Satyajit Singh, eds., The Dam and the Nation: Displacement and 
Resettlement in the Narmada Valley, Delhi, 1997, pp. 119-120. 


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timing and outcome of elections and set the stage for most major 
political decisions in South Asia. 

In the hottest months, in the season of circulation, as crops move 
off the land, people also move out in search of work. Families that do 
not grow enough food on their own land to support their diets for the 
whole year have always constituted a large proportion of the farm 
population; and, when farming is done and the heat is intense, many 
go out in search of sustenance. Their numbers and trajectories vary 
with the season. In years of plenty, they can find food close to home, 
and during droughts they go farther afield. But, with predictable 
regularity, food becomes more costly as labour is let loose from the 
farm in the hot season. For those who must work for others, this is a 
time of distress. For those who have powers to employ, it is a time to 
acquire workers for seasonal off-farm labour; and people with stores 
of food and money do just that. Today, landowners with year-round 
supplies of irrigation water from mechanical pumps, wells, and canals 
in Punjab bring workers all the way from Bihar, and, as we will see, 
such inequalities in the distribution of capital and labour have had a 
major influence on patterns of social power and economic develop- 
ment over the centuries.!? Historically, seasonal workers have moved 
in large numbers into warfare, manufacturing, building, and hauling, 
all perennial options. They transport and process crops in the season 
of circulation. The expansion and contraction of opportunities for 
such non-farm work in the hot season is a major determinant of 
workers’ annual income. Dirt roads trampled hard and riverbeds dried 
up in the hot sun make this a good time to transport workers, grain, 
animals, and building materials. Haulers, herders, carters, and grazing 
land are badly needed during the season of circulation. Water and 
fodder for animals are a problem. Transhumant animal keepers take 
their flocks to the hills for grazing, and herds moving up and down 
the slopes for grazing are major elements in mountain ecology, where 
farming and grazing often compete for land, as they do today in the 
Siwalik hills and higher ranges above Punjab.'* 

Supply, demand, people, goods, and news on the move travel 
through towns and cities, where social needs, social accumulation, and 


13, Manjit Singh, “Bonded Migrant Labour in Punjab Agriculture’, Economic and Political 
Weekly, 15 March 1997, 518-19. 

™ Richard P. Tucker, ‘The Evolution of Transhumant Grazing in the Punjab Himalaya’, 
Mountain Research and Development, 6, 1, 1986, 17-28. 


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social power mingle in markets, on the streets, and under the eye of 
the ruler, engendering conflict and competition as well as negotiation 
and exchange. Markets and urban centres are places where all the 
various people of the countryside mingle with one another — causing 
endless problems — under an umbrella of power held by the people 
who order the world and receive the riches of the land in return. 
Holding that power is a magical dream. In the mangala kavyas of 
eighteenth-century Bengal, for instance, the poets ‘sing ecstatically of 
vakula trees in blossom, and cows grazing on the river-banks and 
water-birds and lotuses and peacocks’, but rustic heroes go to town in 
search of wealth and crave to be king.'° In the eighteenth century, 
when Bijayram Sen travelled from Bengal to Benares, he described 
each town as a place of temporal authority and also of homage and 
piety; and in his travelogue, the Tirthamangala, divinity and authority 
dissolve into one another. 


He describes, for instance, how the whole contingent stops to pay obeisance to 
the patron Krishnachandra’s family deity at Gokulganj and [at] the marketplace 
established by his brother, Gokul Ghoshal, agent to Verelst, president of the 
Board of Revenue of the East India Company: 


One by one we prostrated before all the gods 
And came back after offering expenses of worship.!¢ 


The season of circulation is also a time to raise armies and to mobilise 
demonstrations in towns and cities. The land is free of crops, so gang 
labour can be organised for clearing jungle, digging wells and canals, 
and building dams, temples, mosques, monuments, palaces, and forts. 
When the sun is most unrelenting, bandits are desperate and feed off 
travellers on the road — this is a popular theme from ancient Tamil 
literature that rings true today in the tales of Chambal valley gangs 
who rob passing trains, and in the tales of Phoolan Devi. The hot 
season is belligerent. Benevolent rulers need force to keep the peace 
and ambitious rulers can use hungry soldiers to increase their terri- 
tory. 

In late May, all eyes turn to the skies and labour moves back to the 
land. This time is for preparation and expectation. Cultivation begins 
with the promise of rain. Work preparing fields for the crops varies in 

15 Edward C. Dimock and Ronald B. Inden, ‘The City in Pre-British Bengal, according 
to the mangala-kavyas’, in Richard Park, ed., Urban Bengal, East Lansing, 1969, p. 15. 


16 Sudipta Sen, Empire of Free Trade: The East India Company and the Making of the 
Colonial Marketplace, Philadelphia, 1998, pp. 33-4. 


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its timing, complexity and demand for workers, animals, and equip- 
ment, depending on the crops to be sown, soil to be planted, rainfall 
timing and quantity, and water supplies from other sources, such as 
wells, tanks, or streams; and it also depends on the kind of assets that 
can be invested in anticipation of the harvest in specific places, 
because rich farmers can afford to make more elaborate preparations, 
and new technologies allow for new investments before planting 
begins. Calculating all of these variables, their interaction, and their 
risks and benefits consumes massive intellectual energy, endless hours 
of debate, argument, and negotiation during the season of cultivation. 
Expertise and experience are crucially important and highly valued. 
The accumulated wisdom of farmers, patriarchs, astrologers, almanacs, 
scientists, old sayings, magicians, holy men, textbooks, extension 
officers, radio, and TV pundits all come into play. Prediction and 
calculation continue each day based on the rains that come and the 
level of water in rivers, streams, and reservoirs, for it is not only the 
total amount of rain that will determine the harvest but also the 
timing of rain and water supply as they affect each type of seed and 
soil on each bit of ground. Bad signs dictate conservative strategies for 
farmers living close to the margin. For farmers with extra assets, 
however, rumours or signs of an impending bad monsoon or war 
might indicate potential profit during a subsequent season of scarcity 
and high prices; and this might stimulate a calculated gamble, extra 
planting. Such gambles often fail. Whatever the expectation of rain, 
any extra planting or investments in potentially more profitable crops 
— such as cotton, jute, rice, wheat, vegetables, sugarcane, tobacco, and 
plantain - often require a loan. As we will see, historically, the 
expansion of farms into forests and scrublands has typically involved 
credit extended in the expectation of future yields; and increasing the 
capital intensity of farming — by the addition of irrigation, fertilisers, 
machinery, processing equipment, animals, or labour - usually 
depends upon credit.'” For farmers living close to the margin, debt 
may finance the next meal, and poor workers often enter the planting 
season already in debt because of food loans during the dry months. 


17 With the increasing intensity of cultivation in India since 1970, credit has risen as a 
percentage of total capital formation in agriculture and allied sectors from 19 per cent to 33 
per cent; and compound growth rates rose from 20 per cent during the 1970s to 35 per cent 
after 1980. K. P. Agrawal, V. Puhazhendhi, and K. J. S. Satyasani, “Gearing Rural Credit for 
the Twenty-First Century’, Economic and Political Weekly, 18 October 1997, 2717-28, and 
table 8. 


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At planting time, old sayings and common sense generally dictate that 
farmers must follow conservative strategies, and it is typically seen as 
being better to secure some returns at harvest time than to lose 
everything with a bad bet. But old sayings on this subject are so 
prominent because they are so often disobeyed, and a great many 
conflicts arise from gambles that go bad — especially, perhaps, in the 
home — and the ruination of the improvident farmer and his family is 
a poignant theme in literature. 

At the time of urgent investments when summer crops must be 
sown, gains from the past go to work, and the price of food is high 
when people are hungry for work. Past losses now hurt the most and 
farmers who have gambled and failed or lost labour in their house- 
holds owing to death or migration feel the pain of being unable to 
carry on without help, which can be humiliating. Conflicts over 
resources rage at this time of year, especially over water and good 
land. Fights that stew for years erupt as the time approaches to 
plough, plant, fertilise, and apply irrigation. Newly acquired assets go 
to work: cattle purchased at summer fairs; land bought, leased, or 
conquered; new fields cleared from forest; dams built and channels 
dug; wealth secured by marriage; the labour of growing children; and 
a good reputation that builds credit-worthiness on solid standing in 
the community. Many farmers need advances of seed, food, and cash 
to accomplish the planting, and advances may or may not enrich 
creditors, but the commitments they involve do create social bonds 
that are critical, and often lasting, for both sides. Social commitments 
within families, communities, sects, castes, and other groups — ce- 
mented during ritual events that punctuate the calendar — enable 
farmers to acquire what they need to plough and plant. Reciprocity 
and redistribution enter a productive phase: horizontal solidarities and 
vertical bonds of loyalty and command facilitate planting, and seek 
returns. Gods also play their part. Supernatural beings take ritual 
offerings and hear lots of promises. In sacred sites, human fear and 
hope meet the natural powers that fix the fate of the crop. Omens are 
discussed. Many interactions that animate the heady season of 
ploughing and planting bring villagers into town and city folk into 
villages. In cities and towns, past returns from trade, taxes, and sacred 
donations seek their productivity on the land. Creditors, tax collectors, 
landlords, merchants, and lawyers come from town to invest in the 
crop and to make sure they will get their due. 


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Too many rainless days bring despair and high prices. Scarcities that 
become famines set in after July when past seasons have been bad and 
food stocks are low. The poorest people must do whatever they can 
for food, which often means committing themselves or their children 
in desperate ways — in this context, what we call ‘bonded labour’ can 
be seen as exploitation and also as protection against starvation. The 
scattered, unpredictable nature of monsoons in many places, and the 
possibility of flood or devastating storms in others, make the main- 
tenance of subsistence options in times of dire distress a critical life- 
strategy for many people. 

Rains bring hope, mosquitoes, malaria, flooding, and waterborne 
disease. As the crops sprout and mature, so do estimates of their yield 
and the calculation of payments to be made for obligations incurred to 
do the planting. Farmers, creditors, landlords, and state officials 
evaluate their potential returns. Speculation and negotiation proceed 
along with uncertainty about the outcome of the season. The connec- 
tion is again being forged between the wet and dry months, between 
seasons of cultivation and circulation, between times of investment 
and reward. 

Crops must be protected as they ripen, and predators take many 
forms. Conflicting interests - among landlords, farmers, labourers, 
creditors, and tax collectors — mature with the crop. The immediate 
labour of village people on the farm itself — required to bring the crop 
to fruition — becomes most critical as the harvest approaches. Farm 
labour is needed at just the right time for timely watering, weeding, 
cutting, hauling, winnowing, drying, and storing the crop. Disruptions 
to the work at hand during this climactic phase of cultivation can ruin 
the crop and spoil the future that is planned on predictions of yield. 
As a result, enmity can take a nasty turn. The reliable commitment of 
labour to the farm becomes most valuable now; and the real market 
value of labour increases as the harvest begins. At harvest time, prices 
fall as labour demand is peaking, and labour demand is particularly 
high when another crop will be immediately sown, which is often the 
case in regions that benefit from the winter monsoon; and irrigation 
often allows a second or third crop to be planted. The most hectic 
work time hits all the farmers at once in each locality, and, at this time, 
stability and harmony in social relations — so prized in agricultural 
communities around the world — become critical for determining 
dividends for everyone who has invested in the crop. This is also a 


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time when conflicts intensify over the division of the crop and over 
the fulfilment of past promises. 

Festivals, rituals, and weddings follow the harvest and bring relief 
from work and tension. But struggles over the division of the produce 
follow it into its season of circulation, especially when the yield is 
worse than predicted and expectations are frustrated. This is a time 
when tax collectors, creditors, in-laws, and landlords can become 
nasty. The big harvest festivals mark the completion of the agricultural 
year and forge the social bonds for another cycle of seasons. Each year 
influences the next by providing the material and social assets with 
which all the many participants in agriculture face one another in the 
negotiations of everyday life. Among these assets, divine blessing is 
basic, and gods get lots of attention when the harvest is done. 

Because the sun controls the seasons, it exerts general control over 
agricultural time. In popular mythology, Surya drives a chariot pulled 
by seven white horses, and turns around among the stars to head 
north in January, moving into the celestial house of Makara (Capri- 
corn). The turn of the solar year occurs during the overlapping 
months of the summer and winter harvests (between November and 
February) and is celebrated everywhere in South Asia. But the start of 
the cultivation year actually falls at the end of the hot season, in 
June.'® For all the agrarian states which have pinned their well-being 
and revenue on seasons of agriculture, financial transactions with the 
farmers continue throughout the solar cycle and the revenue year has 
conventionally started with the summer monsoon. The fiscal year — or 
fasli (revenue settlement) year, which is derived from Mughal practice 
and retained by modern states — runs from the middle of one solar 
year (July) to the next. In India today, the summer session of 
Parliament also starts in July, and elections are timed to precede the 
monsoon, which makes the planting season a time of political promises 
as well. In the drier parts of South Asia, the harvest from the summer 
crop is much more prominent than the winter harvest and thus, for the 
agricultural population, the farming year in effect ends in December, a 
popular time for marriages. October and November also witness 
major festivals: Dassara, Durga Puja, and Navaratri. The winter crop 


18 The monsoon’s starting date is officially announced in the media and awaited publicly 
with eager anticipation. Its onset is more predictable than its benevolence: in twenty-five 
years from 1972 until 1996, it began more than five days before or after 1 June only seven 
times, though starting dates ranged from 24 May to 18 June. 


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season is most prominent in wetter regions and wherever irrigation is 
abundant, and here there is greater emphasis on festivities in January— 
February, as in Tamil Nadu, where Pongal marks the new year and 
also celebrates the harvest. Everywhere, the solar cycle is the basis for 
calendrical timings for festivals of many kinds which punctuate the 
social life of agriculture. 

The more we investigate agriculture, the harder it is to draw definite 
boundaries around it. In seasons of farming, farm families and others 
involved in farming do essential work on and off the land, and what 
they do in the mosque, in the bank, or at court may be as important as 
work in the field to their survival and to the harvest. If we define 
‘farming’ to include every activity that directly determines what is 
accomplished on a bit of farmland, then it must include off-farm and 
non-farm work by farm family members (including all the work inside 
the household); and it must also include activity by non-farmers that 
immediately affects farming — such as irrigation-building, negotiating 
rental arrangements, collecting taxes, making loans, repaying debts, 
settling property disputes, and mobilising labour. Farming thus in- 
volves a wide range of social activities, but even defined in this broad 
way it still constitutes only a small proportion of agricultural activity, 
which is more widely dispersed among many social settings. It is little 
wonder that vernacular texts in South Asia from ancient times to the 
present describe ‘agriculture’ very vaguely and broadly, treating ritual 
and astrology, for instance, as critical features of agricultural knowl- 
edge. Modern mentalities may assign prayer, worship, myth, marriage, 
and pilgrimage to the realm of religion; genetics, hydrology, engi- 
neering, medicine, meteorology, astrology, and alchemy to the realm of 
science; metal working, carpentry, spinning, weaving, and pot making 
to the realm of manufacturing; and trade, banking, war, herding, 
migration, politics, poetry, drama, adjudication, administration, and 
policing each to their separate realms of social activity. But all these are 
part of agriculture. They contain essential agricultural activity. 

Historically, a majority of social activities and institutions in South 
Asia have had some agricultural aspect or dimension. This is what 
makes a social space and cultural environment agrarian. A region or 
social space is agrarian not because farming forms the material basis 
for other activities, but rather because a preponderance of social 
activity engages agriculture in some way or another during seasons of 
cultivation and circulation. In this respect, industrialism has overtaken 


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agriculture very slowly and partially around the world. Industry and 
urbanism may be identified with modernity, but vast areas inside 
industrial, urban countries remain agrarian today; and most of the 
modern world is in fact agrarian as measured by the use of its land, the 
work of its populations, and the origins of gross domestic product. 
Agrarian histories intersect the history of modernity everywhere. 
South Asian history involves a broad mix of agricultural and industrial 
activities and a constant mingling of rural and urban environments. 
But modernity’s urban middle classes around the world detached 
themselves from agrarian life and took history with them, so that 
agrarian history now seems smaller — more compact, specialised, and 
marginal — than the political, cultural, and social history within which 
the urban middle classes find their own past. 

To analyse the history of social power in agriculture and its 
articulation with states and environments, we can look for dispersed 
activities that constitute agriculture and are scattered across agrarian 
space. For long periods and in large territories of agrarian history, 
there was little if any organisational power to coordinate agricultural 
activity in much of agrarian space. Nowhere in the world do we ever 
find one overarching systemic intelligence holding together all the 
physical elements and forms of social power that constitute agricul- 
ture, even today, even in the most centrally controlled agricultural 
regimes. Nature’s variability discourages any overbearing, non-local 
control over the intimate, everyday conduct of farming. A single farm 
— or a slave plantation, or a commune — might be tightly organised, but 
controlling farming activity minutely in a large territory is impossible. 
As we will see, the organised effort to establish large-scale institutional 
mechanisms to control farming locally is a basic project of modernity, 
and it dominates the process of agricultural development. From this 
perspective, Moreland was quite wrong, for what he called ‘develop- 
ment’ in the Delhi Sultanates and Mughal empire was a very different 
kind of project from the modernisation that he had promulgated as an 
agricultural officer in the 1920s. Pre-modern projects of development 
deployed no state power worth mentioning inside the operation of the 
farm itself. State powers mobilised under British rule were of a much 
greater magnitude, they had deeper local penetration, and they were 
designed to influence the operation of individual farms. They had 
some success. After 1947, national states extended their local powers 
considerably. Since the 1970s, international financial institutions, most 


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notably the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, have 
sought to supersede the powers of national states in South Asia and 
elsewhere, by using their financial leverage to open farms everywhere 
to the discipline of global markets. Institutions of control over 
production form a large part of agrarian history. 

Cultivation and circulation are never haphazard in agrarian space, 
even in the absence of centralised controls. Regularities form within 
natural landscapes and interconnected agrarian activities articulate 
variously self-conscious social powers that organise agriculture in the 
circumscribed spaces that we can call agrarian territory. A single logic 
or dominant form of social power may not control agriculture in such 
territory, but the markings of agrarian territorialism can be mapped, 
and the changing formations of social power can be charted chrono- 
logically. Mapping patterns of control and order, including internal 
resistance and external disruptions, defines the historical geography of 
agriculture. States help to organise agriculture by forming zones of 
power that co-ordinate many kinds of social activity that intersect on 
the farm. But many types of circulating elements inhabit agrarian 
space. Farms are only the most immediate point of contact between 
land and labour — the most tangible site of production — and most of 
what constitutes agriculture circulates far beyond the boundaries of 
the farm and well beyond boundaries of cultivation. Institutions of 
many kinds — including those that form the state — organise the 
movement of materials and activities into and out of farming and thus 
agriculture. 

States exert their powers by defining, enclosing, and regulating 
territorial units of agricultural organisation. Describing territory and 
legitimating state authority in agrarian space constitute essential work 
for state elites and affect the character of social power in farming. We 
can see documentary traces of this activity from the time of the 
Mauryas onwards, but the ideas about territory which modern 
historians routinely impose on the land in South Asia derive from 
colonial times. As the East India Company drew state boundaries for 
the Raj, it also ‘settled’ farming regions with laws of landed property 
and policies of revenue collection that regulated agrarian territory. By 
1815, the Raj had settled upon the village as the basic unit of agrarian 
administration. Within the boundaries of British India, authors en- 
shrined the village community as the core political, economic, and 
social unit. Initially, this accompanied blatant efforts to discredit 


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previous rulers and to eliminate their territorial traces. But, as modern 
ideas developed about civilisations of the Orient, evidence accumu- 
lated that the peasant village community had survived through all the 
ages of empire and calamity before British rule. Ideologically, the 
village came to represent a survival of agrarian tradition and the 
administrative foundation of agrarian modernity. Modern authors 
then constructed a civilisation territory within the territory of British 
India, and this defined the national heritage for the peoples of modern 
South Asia. Nepal, for instance, would not be the territory it is today 
without a specific set of victories in wars with the East India 
Company, but today this nation state marks a civilisation territory 
with an ancient heritage. Modernity invented traditions of civilisation 
and, within them, village territories, where individual peasant families 
farmed their own land with their own self-possessed resources. The 
territory called ‘India’ became traditional and the village and family 
farm became its elemental units. The cultural construct called ‘India’ 
came to rest on the idea that one basic cultural logic did in fact 
organise agriculture in all its constituent (village) territories from 
ancient to modern times. Debates have raged as to whether this 
unitary logic should be understood in terms of exploitation or 
consensus, but, within all the national territories of modernity in 
South Asia, stable, traditional village societies were taken to be 
territories of ancient agrarian civilisation which had survived basically 
unchanged over the millennia before colonialism. 

The modern invention of civilisation territories continues a very old 
elite project of using narration to organise agrarian territories. Modern 
imperialists projected the map of British India back into histories of 
ancient times to legitimate their authority over all the villages in this 
agrarian territory and to authorise their own ability to speak for the 
poor, downtrodden, country folk. Nehru’s Discovery of India, like 
the Akbarnama, narrates geography and genealogy to inscribe terri- 
torial order and authority. The modern master narrative of Indian 
civilisation thus bestows upon leaders of the modern state the charisma 
of epic heroes and classical emperors. This narrative begins with 
Aryans and Vedas and moves on to a ‘classical age’ led by the Mauryas 
and Guptas, so that a linear evolution of civilisation defines the land of 
Bharat. In the ancient past, classical traditions came into place which 
are presumed to have filled out the civilisational space of Bharat, so 
that later migrations into this territory can be seen as ‘foreign 


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invasions’. After ‘foreign conquests’ by the Hunas, our civilisation 
narrative recounts the fall of the Guptas and the onset of a medieval 
period of political fragmentation and regionalisation, which spans 
about 1,200 years. Before 1290, we learn, Hindu kings established 
vibrant regional cultures, but then once again foreign conquerors came 
from Central Asia and began the epoch of Muslim rule. Still another 
political fragmentation followed the end of the Mughal imperium, 
which led to another foreign invasion and conquest — by the British — 
and thus to all the transformations and disruptions of modernity. In 
the modern period, the master narrative concludes, the natives in this 
civilisation territory drove out the British, and, by 1971, popular 
national movements had created the independent states of Bangladesh, 
India, Nepal, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka. Notwithstanding differences 
among these states, their official histories agree that their boundaries 
are inscribed on the land from ancient times. They also agree that basic 
traditional forms of village society remained intact from ancient to 
modern times. 

The core continuity in this official narrative — that the village 
represents a constant unit of agrarian order from ancient times to the 
present — indicates how ideologically important village tradition is for 
modern states. The scale of conceptual control over agrarian territory 
exercised in this linear narrative by the people who claim to represent 
the true legacy of this civilisation also indicates the importance of old 
empires for modern states. Though this master narrative pertains to 
the legacy of nations, and describes neither the chronology nor the 
geography of agrarian history, its rendition of civilising power does 
indicate some contours of the institutional environment within which 
social powers have sought to organise agriculture over the centuries. 
Elites who define civilisation in their own image are also designing 
agrarian territories in moral, political, and mythological terms. 
Mythology helps to sustain institutions of social power on the land. 
Civilising power is controlling, imaginative, mythical, and magical. We 
can jettison ideas about there being one (or any fixed number of) 
civilisation(s) in South Asia, and view South Asia instead as a 
geographical space in which many elements of civilising power have 
been combined historically, including cities, states, high culture, 
organised religion, elites, manufacturing, merchants, science, and 
philosophical reflections on the nature of the universe. Such powers 
do exert control over agricultural activities and define agrarian space, 


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giving agrarian territory subtle substance, because culture instigates 
powers of control over nature and over work on the farm. 


MAPS 


Physically, work on the farm is mostly lifting, pushing, pulling, 
cutting, pouring, hauling, pumping, chopping, digging, and otherwise 
moving things around. Farms seem to be fixed in space, but even the 
plants in the ground turn into crops only when they move into the 
realm of circulation. Historical geography needs to consider not only 
changing farm areas over time but also the moving elements that must 
converge at moments-in-space to make farming happen. The powers 
that people exert to confine these elements spatially and temporally 
mark agricultural territories; but confinements that form boundaries 
and borderlands are always porous and partial. Think about water. It 
defines farm environments of South Asia more than any other physical 
element. Nature distributes water but does not determine its agricul- 
tural geography. Water moving in the sky, on the ground, and under 
the ground creates the timing and location of aridity and humidity. 
Farms control water. Farming in South Asia means putting elements 
in place that will make the most of water when it arrives. Water never 
stops moving and changing form: it percolates, evaporates, falls, runs, 
freezes, and melts. Its local supply and its local effects on farms might 
seem to be simply the product of rain falling on the ground — as the 
old saying would have it, “Farming is a gamble on the monsoon’ — but 
agriculture is not simply a series of bets about chance occurrences. 
Irrigated agriculture is a massive social project, in which people in 
South Asia have engaged since ancient times. Today, the expansion of 
irrigation by pumping water from deeper and deeper levels and by 
extending controls over the length of every river is a prime strategy to 
increase farm productivity. Irrigation defines agrarian space not only 
by its landscape architecture and physical powers over water above 
and below the ground, but also by its institutions and social forma- 
tions. The social institutions that bring drainage and subsoil water 
onto farmland always implicate elite non-farmers in cities and towns 
across regions that stretch miles away from the site of irrigation itself. 
The historical geography of irrigated agriculture includes the physical 
distribution of surface and sub-surface water, the territorial configura- 
tion of institutions that bring that water onto farms, and the move- 


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ment of ideas about technology, power, and justice that make those 
institutions work. 

So-called dry farms have no irrigation, but they also depend on 
complex social institutions that control agricultural elements circu- 
lating in territories that surround dry fields and villages. Getting seeds 
into the ground in time for the rain requires labour, equipment for 
ploughing, and materials such as seeds and manure which need to be 
applied in a timely fashion — timing is critical — even if the farmer does 
not have the necessary resources immediately at hand and nothing is 
left in store from the previous season to supply these inputs. Seasonal 
circumstances or chronic shortages often require external finance 
before ploughing can begin; financing must somehow move into the 
farm nexus and facilitate the movement of necessary goods and 
services onto a farmer’s land. All farms, moreover, depend on seeds 
bred over centuries to catch the moisture and make the most of the 
rain as it moves from the sky down into the ground and evaporates 
back into the atmosphere. Seeds and seed breeding represent tech- 
nology for controlling the local effects of water mingled with 
nurturing elements in the soil. Farmers seek seeds that yield more with 
less water, grow faster to make the most of scarce water supplies, or, 
like the primeval arid-zone crop (pearl millet) produce something with 
almost no rain. The green revolution is based on seeds that can be 
made to yield much more than older varieties with additional inputs of 
water and fertiliser; it is an old strategy that is being bent toward 
increasing productivity with the assumption of higher inputs of 
moisture and plant nutrition. Seed selection and breeding activities 
must occur in wide agricultural spaces before they are applied on 
specific bits of land. Though, in the short run, seeds that a farmer 
plants might come from the yield of the previous season, promiscuity 
makes pollination creative and adaptive. Over the years, the selection 
and breeding of crops must occur within wide zones of pollination in 
order to be effective for any individual farmer, even as farmers restrict 
the breeds and breeding in their own fields. Adding organic material 
to the soil makes the most of water at hand, whether by adding silt 
and minerals with irrigation water, grazing animals to make grass and 
stubble into manure, ploughing in organic matter brought from 
forests, or applying chemicals. These materials come to the farm from 
outside, and institutional arrangements for their movement are critical 
in farming. Wooded lands for green manure have very often been 


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controlled by communities, rulers, and landlords, rather than by 
individual farmers. Nomads or transhumant shepherds often bring 
animals to graze on the fields. Chemical fertilisers come from petro- 
chemical plants, state industries, and multinational corporations. The 
origin, control, and terms of trade that bring added fertility to the land 
make a big difference in everyday farm life. 

Knowledge is a critical element in farming and brings all the 
elements together. Many texts therefore implicitly describe territories 
of social power in agriculture. Ideas moving among farmers create 
territories of knowledge. An elusive geography of ideas surrounds 
farmers who need to know how to make the best (or even safest and 
simplest) gamble with the rains. Each farmer needs to know about soil 
preparation, seed selection, planting, watering, manuring, and weeding 
for the specific combination of water, crops, soil, and labour condi- 
tions on each farm. Ways of knowing come from generations of 
learning in wide regions. Every individual calculation and decision on 
each farm is the result of conversations among many farmers and 
other people, which accumulate over generations. Textual representa- 
tions of old forms of agricultural knowledge can be found in Sanskrit 
texts from the first millennium CE, such as Varahamihira’s Brhat 
Samhita, which give astrologers and people who control powerful 
mantras and rituals key roles in agriculture. Brhat Samhita verses say 
that all astrologers must know ‘indications of the approach of the 
monsoon . . . signs of immediate rainfall, prognostication through the 
growth of flowers and creepers ... [celestial influences on the] 
fluctuation in the prices of commodities [and] growth of crops ... 
treatment and fertilising of trees, water-divination [etc.]’ [no. 16]. 
Because deities enjoy trees and water [no. 537], the astrologer needs to 
know signs on the earth that indicate water sources below [nos. 
499-561]. He needs to know portents of famine: sunspots are a dire 
signal, but so too are certain rainbows [no. 29], shapes on the moon’s 
face [nos. 36-8], eclipses [no. 58], dust storms [no. 67], appearances of 
Venus [no. 105], and comets [nos. 146-51]. The Brhat Samhita 
introduces its treatment of portents of rain with phrasing that we often 
find in old texts: ‘As food forms the very life of living beings, and as 
food is dependent on the monsoon, [the monsoon] should be investi- 
gated carefully’ [no. 230]. Seven chapters consider rain signs, and, just 
like Tamil proverbs recorded in the 1890s, focus on configurations of 
the planets and signs such as rainbows, cloud shapes, insect and animal 


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behaviour, the sounds and shapes of thunder and lightning, and 
rainfall during each division of the solar and the lunar calendar. Many 
agricultural proverbs recorded in modern times refer to the wisdom of 
astrologers, who provided guidance for farmers. In 1802, Benjamin 
Heyne found a set of instruments in Mysore for measuring rain that 
were used to compile almanacs and to presage ‘the quantity of rain 
allotted to each country’; and the Brhat Samhita shows astrologers 
how to make such rainfall measurements accurately [nos. 245—6].!? 
The Krishiparasa gives mantras to ward off insect and animal pests 
from the field, while the Sarangadharapadhati describes effective 
natural pesticides. In the 1870s, Lal Behari Day recorded a range of 
local curses, omens, and magical powers at work on Bengal farms.”° 
Geographies of labour mobility also define agrarian territory. For 
most farmers, most of the time, moving labour onto the land at the 
right time to do the right thing is no mean feat. Effective control over 
material and labour matched to specific bits of farmland is never 
merely a gamble, nor is it determined on a single farm. Patriarchy, 
labour markets, and other elements in the micro-politics of labour 
control link together many farms and sites of power in agrarian 
territories?! Historically, moreover, a vast amount of agricultural 
production in South Asia has involved moving labour over the land in 
patterns that are not typical of what we think of as sedentary 
agriculture. Slash-and-burn farming, long- and short-fallow farming 
(in which fields are planted over a range of fallowing intervals), and 
alternating field use for different crops, grasses, and animals have been 
prominent for centuries. Many farming communities have moved as 
whole communities around an agricultural territory to define its 
shifting boundaries and to relocate their farms over seasons and 
generations. And over the long term, as we will see, migrations of 
labour and capital have changed the landscape by creating farms where 
there were none before, and by replacing one type of farm with 
another. Moving labour onto a particular bit of farmland in each 


19 All references to Varahamihira’s Brhat Samhita are to the edition by M. Ramakrishna 
Bhat, Delhi, r98r. 

20 Mazharul Islam, ‘Folkore as a Vehicle of Ethnological Study in Bangladesh’, in 
Shamsuzzaman Khan, ed., Folklore of Bangladesh, Dhaka, 1987, p. 21. 

21 See Jens Lerche, ‘Is Bonded Labour a Bound Category? — Reconceptualizing Agrarian 
Conflict in India’, Journal of Peasant Studies, 22, 3, 1995, 484-515; Ashok Rudra, ‘Local 
Power and Farm-Level Decision Making’, in M. Desai, S. H. Rudolph, and A. Rudra, (eds.), 
Agrarian Power and Agricultural Productivity in South Asia, Berkeley, 1984, pp. 251-80; 
and chapter 4 below. 


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season is an activity that occurs within wide movements of labour, and 
all these nested geographies of labour mobility are not necessarily 
confined by the village or by political boundaries that appear on 
ordinary maps. Very often, labour moves away from farming activity 
altogether — into manufacturing, transportation, military, and other 
occupations — and needs to be brought back to the farm in time for the 
planting; or, if it moves away permanently, it needs to be replaced, 
perhaps by using cash remittances sent by children from far away 
places. Turning income derived from non-farm work and from other 
investments into assets which can be deployed effectively on the farm 
has long been a key to prosperity in farming. 

Prices define another moving, elusive geography. The cost of farm 
inputs, the exchange value of outputs, and the quantity of produce 
that remains in the hands of a farmer at year’s end, to be applied the 
next year — all these are in part determined in wider spatial domains 
than are defined by the farm, village, cultural region, state, or empire. 
Farm families are almost never content to consume only what grows 
on the farm and they are often unable to sustain themselves with their 
own farm products or income, so that off-farm labour and non-farm 
products are important for the reproduction of the most self-sufficient 
farm families, whose local entitlements typically depend upon prices. 

Finally, mythologies and sacred geographies define agrarian space, 
because no farming population has ever believed that activity on the 
farm itself is sufficient for success in farming. Propitiating deities, 
paying homage to holy persona, visiting sacred places, and gathering 
with one’s own people to create ritual conditions for success on the 
farm are essential in agriculture. 

Agriculture thus involves the exertion of powers of control over 
many moving elements — including esoteric knowledge, supernatural 
beings, human migrations, prices, commodities, and elements of 
nature — within which farmers apply labour onto the land. Control 
over the means of production is thus no simple function of property 
rights, social status, or class structure. Agriculture is an aspect of social 
institutions and power relations within which farms and farmers 
work. It is an aspect of civilisation which generates, combines, and 
focuses physical powers over naturally moving and socially movable 
objects in production. The historical geography of agriculture is there- 
fore not simply described by the extent of fields and farms, or by the 
boundaries of states, or by cultural regions, although fields, farm 


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territory, and political and cultural powers do mark territorial bound- 
aries in agrarian space. 

Agrarian territory is the part of agrarian space that can be effectively 
bounded, physically and culturally, and marked as a spatial domain for 
organised social power and activity. Agrarian territory is reproduced 
over time by the reproduction of social power within social institu- 
tions. The state is a collection of institutions which have central points 
and figures of authority. State institutions are those most directly 
under the control of people in official hierarchies of authority. There 
are many kinds of state institutions — military, fiscal, legal, and 
managerial — and they vary in their ability to organise social power in 
agriculture. Social power in agriculture is by definition distributed 
unequally, not only in amount but in quality, because it is constituted 
by effective decisions which direct the movement of the elements that 
are combined productively in farming. Power meets resistance. Phy- 
sical power meets physical resistance. Forest growth resists the expan- 
sion of farmland. Animals fought back in the Sunderbans and became 
the scourge of Bengal settlers there. Water constantly resists control 
and seems at times to want to flood the land and to hide in the earth. 
Physical force can also be used to overcome resistance from people. 
But coercion is not the only kind of interaction between social power 
and social resistance. The various qualities of social power interact in 
various combinations, negotiations, alliances, exchanges, accommoda- 
tions, and forms of conflict. These interactions form patterns within 
the institutions of agrarian territoriality. Because all the moving 
elements in agriculture resist control, agrarian territoriality — like 
nationality — is always an on-going project, and movements into and 
out of institutional territories are constantly problematic. Within 
agrarian territory, control is always relative. At one end of the 
spectrum, natural phenomena — such as monsoons, topography, 
evaporation, photosynthesis, and soil types — resist human control 
absolutely. Prices, knowledge, beliefs, and migration are nearly as hard 
to control as the wind, but efforts to control them have long been 
objects of territorial ambition. At the other end of the spectrum, 
humans do control things such as cropping patterns, wage rates, 
marriage choices, occupational options, state institutions, and the like. 
Such controllable items form the visible landmarks of territoriality in 
agrarian space. 

Institutions define agrarian territory with social routines of control 


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over dispersed, moving elements in agricultural production. As we 
will see, violence is prominent in agrarian South Asia and it is critical 
in Ranajit Guha’s brief treatment of territoriality, which can serve as a 
benchmark. Guha defines a peasant in British India as a subaltern 
subject of a semi-feudal regime controlled by landlords, money- 
lenders, bankers, high castes, and colonial officials. These elites form a 
“composite apparatus of dominance over the peasant’. He argues that 
peasant consciousness appears in ‘the general form of peasant resis- 
tance’, and that territoriality is an elementary aspect (a basic compo- 
nent) of peasant insurgency, expressing resistance and consciousness. 
Inscribed in peasant thought and action, peasant territoriality facil- 
itates and circumscribes insurgency. It is distinctly subaltern, wholly 
outside the state, analytically and politically opposed to elite identity 
and control. Relatively small in extent, peasant territoriality is fluid, 
anti-geometrical, and logically opposed to modern boundary defini- 
tions. Formed in natural landscapes by social networks, sacred places, 
myths, and personal alliances, territoriality is inscribed in peasant 
consciousness by social and cultural history, and by old logics of 
social action that Guha finds manifest in violent uprisings in colonial 
times. Guha indicates that insurgency is one fleeting rendition of a 
cultural map that is drawn by many means over centuries of life on the 
land. He does not, however, explore the history of peasant territori- 
ality. Is it historical, that is, produced by conscious human agency 
over time, changing, mutable, and recorded in evidence from the past? 
Guha says that the ‘dye of a traditional culture was yet to wash off the 
peasant’s consciousness’,”? so it would seem that peasants inherit 
territory as tradition. But we could propose that histories of various 
kinds — involving kinship, religion, trade, migration, and states — 
constructed old territories in the peasant world. Peasant territorialism 
had utility and meaning in activities other than insurgency, for 
instance in farming, trade, marriage, war, pilgrimage, and diplomacy. 
These uprisings were actually part of a long history of territorial 
conflict on frontiers of intensive agriculture as it pushed into more 
extensive tribal regimes of cultivation. Peasant insurgencies were 
violent formations of social power that the mostly tribal insurgents 
produced to conquer people who were taking away their land. From a 


22 Ranajit Guha, Elementary Aspects of Peasant Insurgency in Colonial India, Delhi, 
1983, pp. 6-8, 12-13, 170-1, 333-4. 


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long-term perspective within agrarian history, such insurgency under 
colonialism represents a moment of territorialisation. In the late 
twentieth century, descendants of the insurgents fight for their land in 
elections, courts, and international agencies. 

Territorial institutions — including caste groups, lineages, clans, 
tribal groups, village communities, armies, sects, businesses, states, and 
war — inscribe their identity on agrarian space and constitute social 
power in agrarian territory. The nation is one such institution. 
Agrarian history is informed most copiously by the records and other 
traces (including the sculpting of the land itself) that territorial 
institutions leave behind. Social institutions may not be able to control 
monsoons, but they can (1) control elements such as water, finances, 
and commodities, (2) determine rules for entitlements to means of 
production, (3) accumulate wealth and finance technologies that 
increase the total pool of farm assets, and (4) organise power for the 
benefit of specific groups in agrarian society. Agrarian institutions 
leave texts behind which indicate that they have changed radically over 
millennia, in part because of the fluidity, permeability, and reconfi- 
guration of their territories. Mobility across territories seems to be a 
major threat when seen from inside territorial institutions; from the 
outside, however, we can see that such mobility provides the very 
reason for the existence of boundaries between territories and of the 
powers that define them. The extent of mobility influencing agrarian 
South Asia has never been confined to the subcontinent, conventional 
images of Indian civilisation notwithstanding. Interlaced trajectories, 
networks, circuits, zones, and regions of mobility connect western, 
eastern, and southern Eurasia from prehistoric to modern times. All 
agrarian territories in South Asia have distinctive features which have 
been imparted by their location within zones of mobility that define 
southern Eurasia by land and sea. 

One zone of mobility defines South Asia overland inside inland 
southern Asia. This zone includes two broad corridors: one connects 
the Ganga—Brahmaputra delta in the east with Iran and Palestine in the 
west; the other runs north-south from central Asia into central India 
and the southern peninsula. These corridors intersect in two strategic 
regions: Kabul, Herat, and Mashad lie astride corridors that connect 
south, central, and west Asia; Delhi, Ajmer, and Bhopal lie astride the 
intersecting corridors that connect Kabul, Bengal, and Gujarat with 
the Deccan and southern peninsula. Though mountains are often seen 


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as natural boundaries to mobility — most prominently, the Himalayas 
and Vindhyas — they do not so much obstruct as channel the move- 
ment of elements that influence agrarian history. Travels across Nepal 
to and from the Gangetic plain have always been less prominent than 
along routes running through Kashmir; and overland treks from 
Assam into China are fewer still. But, to the west and north-west, 
barriers to mobility across the Hindu Kush, Iran, Central Asia, and 
China have been erected mostly by military force — by Mauryas 
against Indo-Greeks, Turks and Afghans against the Mongols, and by 
the British against the Russians. In the east, dense tropical jungles have 
restricted transportation over the high mountains, but, in the west, 
battle lines have more effectively determined transport costs along the 
inland corridors of southern Asia. 

A second zone of mobility defines South Asia by sea. Crossing 
some rivers may be arduous but substantial bodies of water in general 
represent low transportation costs on routes of gravity and wind. The 
historical geography of South Asia by sea extends along coastlines 
from East Africa and the Red Sea across Southeast Asia into China. In 
each few centuries, technological change has lowered transport costs 
below their former level, with the most dramatic changes during the 
latter half of the second millennium. Long-distance and bulk transpor- 
tation were always cheaper, safer, and quicker along water routes until 
the advent of the railway. From Roman times onward, waterways 
connected South Asia with the Mediterranean and South China. In the 
day of the Delhi Sultans, sea routes spanned Eurasia; by Akbar’s time, 
they crossed the Atlantic and Pacific to connect coastal regions around 
the world. The coast extended in effect along deltaic waterways north 
into Bengal past Dhaka and then west up the Ganga as far as Patna. 
The Ganga also formed a highway up to Agra, along which flowed the 
Mughal revenue. Along the coast, boats land almost anywhere, 
moving with monsoon wind. Waterways form open zones of interac- 
tion, but some inland areas are much better connected than others to 
sea routes. From the mouth of the Indus to the Konkan coast, and 
from Kanya Kumari to Chittagong, inland areas are very accessible to 
the sea. Afghanistan, Kashmir, and Nepal are isolated from the Indian 
Ocean. In Myanmar and Malaysia, mountain forests and jungle cut off 
inland corridors from the sea. Likewise, coastal Orissa and Kerala are 
relatively isolated from inland corridors. 

These connected zones of extensive mobility — rather than any fixed 


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territorial expanse of Indic civilisation — have defined a world which 
has continuously shaped agrarian institutions in South Asia. Harappa 
and Mohenjo-daro are at the eastern edge of an urban region that was 
strung along land and sea routes running from the Mediterranean to 
the Indus. During the millennium before the Mauryas, archaeological 
and linguistic data describe an extensive zone of settlement and 
cultural movement running from the Mediterranean to the eastern 
Ganga basin; and new regions of material culture are indicated by 
distributions of painted grey ware, black and polished ware, cists, 
urns, and cairns in the Indo-Gangetic plains and the southern penin- 
sula. Under the Mauryas, data from literature, archaeology, travellers’ 
accounts, and other sources describe networks and centres of mobility 
running from Iran to Bengal and from the Oxus to the Narmada; and 
in this inland zone, a political boundary was drawn west of the Indus, 
dividing Maurya domains from those of the Achaemenids and Indo- 
Greeks. This boundary —- pivoting in the north-west around Taxila 
and Gandhara, where Panini was born — divided eastern and western 
regions of southern Eurasia; but mobility across this boundary made it 
so important politically, and Panini’s Astadhyayi indicates increasing 
commercial connections across the inland routes of southern Eurasia 
under the Mauryas. Mobility across this political divide would shape 
agrarian history on both sides without interruption from Mauryan 
times onward. 

At the start of the first millennium CE — when Sangam literature was 
being composed in the southern peninsula — texts to inform history 
multiplied rapidly east of the Sulaiman Range. This resulted from new 
powers in agrarian states over the movement of people, goods and 
ideas. A proliferation of texts resulted particularly from the activity of 
Brahman literati who moved among and settled in regions of intensive 
agriculture. Agricultural intensification, state expansion, and cultural 
production accelerated together under the Guptas, who put an im- 
perial model of civilisation, first invented by the Mauryas, firmly in 
place. Imperial Gangetic dynasties sanctified the Ganga and made their 
own core political territory into a heartland of universal authority. In 
the second half of the first millennium, many dynasties used technol- 
ogies of power produced by the Guptas to create boundaries in the 
agrarian lowlands. But inland corridors of mobility across Eurasia 
remain visible under the Mauryas and Kusanas, under Guptas and 
Hunas, and they appear again in the tenth and eleventh centuries in 


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data that mark the overlapping ambitions of Ghaznavids, Hindu 
Shahis, Candellas, Later Kalacuris, Paramaras, and Ghorids. Inter- 
regional political competition to control inland corridors made Kabul 
and Delhi strategic places around which military competition would 
revolve from then on. Beginning with the Ghaznavids — then with 
Ghorids, Mamluks, Khaljis, Tughluqs, Lodis, and Mughals — people 
who came from west of the Indus increasingly controlled the inland 
corridors; and, for the Brahman literati in medieval agrarian states, this 
fact took on the appearance of foreign invasion and rising Muslim 
power. From an agrarian perspective, however, the transformation of 
southern Asia during first half of the second millennium looks rather 
different. 

In centuries just before 1300, agrarian territories were expanding in 
size all across Eurasia, from western Europe to China. Networks of 
trade connected territories from England to Shanghai, by land across 
the Silk Road and by sea across the Indian Ocean. Strong, compact, 
expansive regional states all across southern Asia generated and drew 
upon assets that moved along the inland corridors and in the maritime 
zone of the Indian Ocean. For the Paramaras in Malwa (tenth to 
thirteenth century), Hoysalas in Mysore (eleventh to fourteenth 
century), Caulukyas in Gujarat (tenth to thirteenth century), Warangal 
Kakatiyas in Andhra (twelfth to fourteenth century), Devagiri 
Yadavas in Maharashtra (thirteenth century), Gahadavalas in Kasi 
(twelfth century), Cahamanas in Rajasthan (tenth to twelfth century), 
Gangas in Orissa (eleventh to fifteenth century), Kalyani Calukyas in 
the Deccan (eleventh to twelfth century), Cholas in Tamil country 
(tenth to thirteenth century), and Senas in Bengal (twelfth to thirteenth 
century), dynastic wealth expanded along routes that ran north and 
south overland, to the coast, and overseas. Later medieval rulers, based 
at the cross-roads of the inland zone, around Delhi, rose to power 
within the interactive history of regions along the inland corridors. 
The Delhi sultans facilitated and depended upon widening movements 
of people and goods by land and sea, which brought travellers, settlers, 
warriors, and sufis into the subcontinent. All competing states in 
southern Asia expanded in size and power amidst expanding mobility 
after 1100. Old agrarian territories continued to grow under the 
impress of new military and organisational powers brought to bear by 
late medieval rulers. The Ghorids (twelfth century), Mamluks (thir- 
teenth century), Khaljis and Tughluqs (fourteenth century) worked 


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within a vast political region which the Gurjara-Pratiharas had pre- 
viously built, running south beyond Malwa into the peninsula; and 
north-south mobility along the inland corridors became even more 
important for all states south of the Narmada after 1300. The old 
regional boundaries drawn by Cholas and Calukyas were drawn again 
by more powerful Vijayanagar, Bijapur, and Bahmani states in the 
fifteenth century. Territories of agricultural expansion developed 
continuously in Rajasthan, Bengal, Punjab, Malwa, Orissa, and the 
Ganga plain as they were incorporated into later medieval states. 
Babur lived in this world of state power. The powers that built the 
Mughal empire ran along the full expanse of southern Eurasia. 

Many texts indicate that old agrarian elites experienced their chang- 
ing medieval context as an age of foreign invasion and conquest. 
Along the Ganga plain, in Malwa and the Deccan, and south to Kanya 
Kumari, the end of the thirteenth century marked the end of an age 
dominated by ruling elites whose institutional powers had descended 
from the Guptas. Historians have many documents from temples, 
bards, pundits, and artists that describe invasions of their sacred space 
and violations of their sacred order. In the view of literary elites, the 
earlier medieval conquests which had produced their own social 
power represented morality and cultural florescence; and the new 
warriors and intellectuals who came from afar — whose networks and 
identities covered great distances — brought the end of their golden 
age. But, as we will see, agrarian history is marked by striking 
continuities in the dynamics of power from the last of the Guptas to 
the rise of the Mughals. Continuities remain after 1550, but Mughal 
conquest and administration put in place new territorial institutions. 
The inland zone of southern Asia was integrated as never before by 
the Mughal, Safavid, and Ottoman empires in the sixteenth and 
seventeenth centuries, which dramatically increased mobility, east and 
west. The Mughal, Ottoman, and Safavid empires depended for their 
wealth on networks of trade that linked them to one another by land 
and sea. Records at Bursa reveal that the bulk of its sixteenth-century 
eastern imports came from India, including spices but predominantly 
textiles. Across southern Eurasia, the net flow of manufactured goods 
and spices moved from the east to the west; and the net flow of 
precious metals moved in the opposite direction, a reciprocal move- 
ment which connected London, Istanbul, Bursa, Cairo, Damascus, 


Baghdad, Isfahan, Multan, Dhaka, Surat, Hyderabad, and Madurai, as 


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well as all the ports of the Indian Ocean and South China Sea. As early 
as the 1470s, the Bahmani sultans organised a trade initiative at Bursa, 
and Bahmani correspondence with Malwa sultans proposed joint 
control over sea trade to the west. Inland trade to the west justified 
great Mughal expense to keep the mountain passes to Kabul open for 
safe travel. At the same time, the Portuguese brought new crops — 
among them chillies, tomatoes, potatoes, tobacco, and coffee. 

It is most appropriate, therefore, to study agrarian South Asia in the 
context of an historical geography that is formed not by a closed 
civilisation territory but rather by extensive, shifting, open corridors 
of mobility stretching overland to Syria and China and overseas to 
Europe and the Americas. It is quite inappropriate to imagine agrarian 
South Asia as being demarcated by boundaries fixed during Maurya, 
Gupta, and medieval times, and violated thereafter by invading 
Muslims and Europeans.?? By 1750, people from western parts of 
Eurasia had participated in cultures along the coast for more than a 
millennium; culturally, the South Asian coast, particularly its urban 
centres, resembled other coastal regions around the Indian Ocean 
more than it did the Mughal heartland, which was influenced promi- 
nently by inland flows across Iran and Uzbekistan. From the start of 
the Common Era, agrarian elites in South Asia have exercised power 
and gained wealth within corridors of mobility that criss-cross 
southern Eurasia, by land and sea, and agrarian history needs to be 
understood in that light. 


LANDSCAPES 


Agrarian territories took distinctive forms in six kinds of environ- 
ments, which we can divide into forty geographical units. All have 
ancient traces of agrarian activity. They housed medieval agrarian 
territories of various types, discussed in chapter 2. In chapter 3, we see 
how in the early-modern period, circa 1500-1850, farming territories 


?3 Parallels between Muslim and British conquests are very widespread in the historical 
literature. See, for instance, Herman Kulke and Dietmar Rothermund, A History of India, 
London, 1990, p. 162, which says that, in the thirteenth century, ‘having developed relatively 
undisturbed by outside influences in the Early Middle Ages, India was now subjected once 
more to the impact of Central Asian forces . . . [which] new impact can only be compared to 
that made by the British from the eighteenth to the twentieth century’. The opening lines of 
J. L. Brockington, The Sacred Thread: A Short History of Hinduism, Edinburgh, 1981 
(reprinted Delhi, 1992), assert that ‘the Mughal period (1525-1761) ... was basically as 
much of a foreign domination as the British Raj which followed it’ (p. 1). 


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were brought together to form agrarian regions — culturally coherent, 
spatially organised territories of social power — and in chapter 4, we 
see how these regions were institutionalised, integrated, and differen- 
tiated by modernity. Farming landscapes are therefore defined pri- 
marily not by their physical or environmental qualities, but rather by 
the long-term interaction of geography, culture, technology, and 
social power. Environmentally, landscapes can be divided rather 
simply between two sets of binary oppositions, according to elevation 
and humidity, whose combination and transitions define much of the 
physical setting: mountains versus plains, and semi-arid versus humid 
tropics. Most farmland lies in the semi-arid plains, including river 
valleys and plateaux; and almost all of the remainder is in the humid 
lowlands, which have a higher proportion of population than of 
farmland. But all the divisions, interactions, and intersections of 
uplands and lowlands and dry and wet lands occur in historical space 
and amidst changing conditions of social power which alter the land 
over time. Rivers change course, deserts expand and contract, dry 
lands receive irrigation, forests grow and disappear, cropping patterns 
change, human settlements alter nature, and farms give way to city 
streets. We need to describe the land in ways that allow us to track 
changes in ecology and in the human content of agrarian territory. 
This outline of agrarian landscapes endeavours to combine all the 
various elements of agrarian territory to define spatial units for the 
long-term historical geography of agriculture in South Asia. Histori- 
cally, Gujarat, Malwa, Bengal, Assam, Khandesh, and Berar are at the 
intersection of landscapes, and they are thus repeated in the list of 
landscape subdivisions. 


Northern river basins 


The basins of the upper Indus and its tributaries, the Yamuna, Ganga, 
and Brahmaputra, form one of the largest expanses of riverine farm- 
land in the world. Soils are mostly alluvium. Farming is challenged 
and enriched by river drainage from mountains all around. Rivers 
bring moisture and nutrients, but floods wreak havoc with frightening 
regularity. In 1784, the whole of Sylhet was under flood water and 
animal carcasses were floating like boats on the sea as the population 
fled to the hills.2* In 1875, the notorious Kosi river destroyed all the 


24 Sylhet District Records, Bangladesh National Archives, vol. 293, pp. 131-57. 


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Aum BW PN HH 


I. 


Io. 
II. 


IT. 


12. 
13. 
14. 
15. 
16. 


IV. 
17. 
18. 
19. 
20. 
21. 
22. 
23. 
24. 
25. 


24. 
25. 
26. 
27% 
28. 
29. 
30. 
31. 
VI. 
32. 
33- 
34- 


AGRICULTURE 


Geographical subdivisions of agrarian South Asia 


Northern river basins 

Punjab 

Western Ganga-Yamuna Plain (Delhi-Agra-Mathura) 

Central plain and doab (Lucknow-Allahabad) 

Eastern Ganga basin (Gorakhpur, Benares, Bihar) 

Bengal, Ganga-Brahmaputra Deltas (West Bengal, Bangladesh) 
Assam (Brahmaputra Basin) 


High mountains 

Kashmir 

Western Mountain Regions (Punjab, Himachal, Uttar Pradesh) 
Nepal 

Bhutan 

Eastern Mountains, (from Assam into Myanmar) 


Western plains 

Indus Valley 

Sindh 

Rajasthan 

Northern Gujarat and Saurashtra 
Malwa 


Central mountains 

Malwa 

Bundelkhand 

Baghelkhand 

Chota Nagpur and Jharkhand 
Chhattisgarh 

Orissa Interior 

Bastar 

Khandesh (Tapti Basin) 

Berar (Waiganga Basin) 


The interior peninsula 

Khandesh (Tapti Basin) 

Berar (Waiganga Basin) 

North (Maharashtra) Deccan (Maharashtra; Godavari and Bhima Basin) 
South (Karnataka) Deccan (Karnataka; Krisha-Tungabadra Basin) 
Mysore Plateau (Palar—- Ponnatyar—Kaveri Basin, above the Ghats) 
Telangana (Krishna-Godavari Interfluve) 

Rayalaseema (Krishna-Pennar Interfluve and Pennar Basin) 

Tamil uplands (Vaigai, Kaveri, Ponnatyar, Palar Basins, below the Ghats) 


Coastal plains 
Gujarat 
Konkan 
Karnataka 


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35. Kerala 
36. Sri Lanka 
37. Tamil Nadu 


38. Andhra 
39. Orissa 
40. Bengal 


farmland in its path; an indigo planter wrote that ‘miles of rich land, 
once clothed with luxuriant crops of rice, indigo, and waving grain, 
are now barren reaches of burning sand’.2? The Ganga provided 
natural routes for transit and shipping to the Bay of Bengal and 
Arabian Sea. Bounded by desert and mountains, the climate in the 
riverine flatlands changes gradually from aridity in the west to 
humidity in the east. Along this gradient, monsoon rainfall and 
drainage from the hills increase and the dominant food grain shifts 
from wheat to rice. Since 1960, wheat and rice cropping has over- 
lapped because quick-growing varieties have allowed farmers with 
adequate irrigation to grow both in rotation, and today almost a 
quarter of the net sown area in Bihar, West Bengal, UP, Haryana, and 
Punjab grows wheat-and-rice, which is very rare outside the Indo- 
Gangetic basins.?° 

In the north-west, separated by a low watershed from the Ganga 
basin (in Haryana), the Punjab is a triangular territory formed by the 
Indus and its tributaries (Jhelum, Chenab, Ravi, Beas, and Sutlej), and 
rimmed by mountains in the west and north (Sulaiman Range, Salt 
Range, Panjal Range and Lesser Himalayas). Rainfall increases with 
proximity to the northern hills from the Jhelum eastward, and aridity 
increases to the west and south. Groundwater recharge is most fulsome 
near the riverbeds and closer to the mountains, and the up-river 
Punjab also has more alluvial soil. Moving downstream toward the 
base of the Punjab at the confluence of tributaries with the Indus, rain 
and groundwater diminish, and soils become brown and then sandy, as 
the Punjab shades into the arid western plains in Rajasthan and the 
lower Indus basin. In Punjab, as in general throughout the northern 
basins, the long-term geographical spread of intensive agriculture 


25 Christopher V. Hill, River of Sorrow: Environment and Social Control in Riparian 
North India, 1770-1994, Ann Arbor, 1997, p. 11. 

26 Ramesh Chand and T. Haque, ‘Sustainability of Rice-Wheat Crop System in Indo- 
Gangetic Basin’, Economic and Political Weekly, 32, 13, 29 March 1997, Review of 
Agriculture, A-27. 


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moved outward from places where drainage is simpler to harness for 
farming to places where more strenuous controls are necessary. In 
drier regions like Punjab, this means that intensification expanded 
from naturally wetter into drier areas; whereas in the flood plains and 
humid tropics farmers expanded initially from higher and drier parts of 
the lowlands into the more water-logged areas at the river’s edge. 
Everywhere, agriculture also moved up river valleys into the highlands. 
In the Yamuna—Ganga basin, the general trend of expansion of 
intensive agriculture has been from east to west and upland from the 
lowlands; and, in the Punjab, from north-east to south-west. A major 
modern stage in this long process of expansion began with the 
construction of a vast canal network during the nineteenth century; the 
most recent stage is the spread of motorised pumps and tubewells since 
the 1960s. The wet lands of riverine Bihar were ancient sites of 
intensive cultivation; and, since 1880, naturally arid lands in Rajasthan 
have had the highest rate of increase in cultivated area of any lowland 
region in South Asia because of new irrigation. 

In the eastern regions of the northern basins, Bengal and Assam 
have the highest rainfall regime; and the great volume of river water 
and the density of tropical jungles have historically presented the 
major challenges to expanding paddy cultivation. Today, the density 
of the human population is often seen as an obstacle to prosperity, but 
historically it has been more commonly a sign of the great fertility of 
the land. The Ganga delta shifted eastward over the centuries and in 
the eighteenth century joined the Brahmaputra in what is now 
Bangladesh. Agricultural frontiers in Bengal have moved east with the 
river, south into the Sunderbans, and also, as throughout the northern 
basin landscape, up from the lowlands into the high mountains. High 
tropical mountains have always had their distinctive, tribal farming 
societies, whose interaction with farmers in the lowlands is one of the 
most complex, difficult subjects in agrarian history, for there is a 
broad, shifting historical and geographical borderland between hills 
and plains. Our documentation comes primarily from the plains and 
indicates constant interaction with upland peoples and constant inte- 
gration of uplands into agrarian regions centred in the lowlands. 

The northern basins are bordered by mountains on all sides, except 
in Rajasthan. Down the mountains their rivers flow. In the mountains 
lie reservoirs of timber and grazing land; and the mountains are the 
homeland for many tribal societies. As we will see, lowland people 


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have historically extended their power up-river into their surrounding 
mountains to colonise, conquer, and annex territory. Rajputs con- 
quered up into Uttarakhand and the mountains above Punjab. From 
ancient times, upper reaches of the Chambal and Parbati (tributaries of 
the Yamuna running down the craggy ravines of the Malwa Plateau) 
were attached to the agrarian economies of the Gangetic plain, though 
they belong physically to the central mountains and they shade off in 
the west into the western plains. 


High mountains 


From the Makran Range in the west, running north across the 
Sulaimans and Hindu Kush, and curving east across the Karakoram 
Range and Himalayas to the Naga and Manipur Hills and then 
Myanmar, a vast high-altitude landscape connects South Asia with 
Central Asia, Tibet, China, and Myanmar. It is steeply sloping 
mountain terrain, with sharp valleys and countless rivers, which mark 
natural routes of transportation and drainage, rushing down into the 
plains below and leading upward to the high plateaux of inner Asia. 
Winters are much colder than below in the plains, and summers are 
much cooler, creating different, complementary ecologies for animals, 
vegetation, forests, farmers, and markets. As in the lowlands, the 
climate changes from extreme aridity in the west to heavy rains and 
humidity in the east, with attendant changes in natural vegetation and 
agricultural options. Run-off is rapid, snow-melt gorges the rivers in 
the spring, and erosion is severe. Geologists have found huge boulders 
from the prehistoric Himalayas as far south as Jaipur, and satellite 
photos show Himalayan silt spilling from the Ganga under the Bay of 
Bengal almost as far as Sri Lanka. Forests have always defined a basic 
natural resource for human settlements in the high mountains. Agri- 
cultural territories formed in valleys have extended up the slopes, 
growing wheat and millets in the west and paddy in the east. 
Agricultural spaces are connected by valleys and passes and separated 
by high ridges and peaks, along routes of trade and migration. Large 
agricultural territories have formed in the Vale of Kashmir, Kath- 
mandu valley, and upper Brahmaputra basin; and in all three, rice is 
the dominant food grain among a great variety of crops. Great 
distances and obstacles to travel separate agrarian territories in the 
high mountains from one another, and these territories are connected 
more effectively to proximate lowland regions than to one another. In 


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the west, Baluch and Pashtu mountain societies live in the corridors 
between Iran, Afghanistan, the Indus basin, and Punjab. The Brahma- 
putra upland is so intensely engaged in the history of the northern 
basins as to form a semi-detached part of that landscape; though it also 
participates in the history of Southeast Asia and China. Various forms 
and qualities of attachment to adjacent lowlands define agrarian 
regions in high mountain valleys. Except for Nepal and Bhutan, all are 
today political parts of lowland states, but a long period of rebellion in 
Nagaland and Mizoram indicates a continuous struggle for political 
autonomy, which is also visible in Baluchistan, Kashmir, and the 
Chittagong Hill Tracts. The Kathmandu basin has always maintained 
a separate political identity. Though separated from the Indo-Gangetic 
lowlands, its institutions of agrarian power still derive from the 
history of migration and settlement that it shares with the rest of 
South Asia. All across the high mountains, from the Yusufzai border- 
lands with Afghanistan to the Chittagong Hill Tracts between Bangla- 
desh and Myanmar, cultural oppositions and separations between 
peoples of the hills and of the lowlands are typically stark. The term 
‘tribe’ is most often applied in modern times to the smaller-scale social 
formations that thrive in the small, relatively isolated agrarian spaces 
of the high mountains. 


Western plains 


The semi-arid western plains abut the high mountains in the west and 
they merge so gradually with the northern river basins in the Indo- 
Gangetic watershed (Haryana) and with the central mountains (in 
Malwa and Gujarat) that we can see them as a set of expansive, 
connective zones for the long-term historical movement of people in 
every direction. Rainfall is very low and spatially the plains are 
dominated by the aridity of the Thar Desert. In prehistoric times, the 
river Saraswati ran deep into western Rajasthan before it ran west into 
its inland delta near the Indus; and Rajasthan, the Indus basin, and 
Sindh seem to have become increasingly dry over millennia. There is 
indirect evidence, as we will see, that Rajasthan dried up noticeably 
during medieval centuries. The scrub-covered, rocky, and scattered 
Aravalli Hills rise abruptly from the flatlands in the east, providing 
fortress material and drainage for adjacent valleys. Irrigation, mostly 
from wells, and good monsoons are more common in the east, where 
they create good rich farmland for bajra, maize, wheat, jowar and 


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cotton. Soil becomes increasingly sandy to the west; and in the south, 
grey-brown sandy soil becomes good red loam, creating a naturally 
favoured zone for farming that runs along a corridor from Haryana 
through Jaipur and Ajmer into Gujarat. As in all arid regions, people 
and animals travel often in search of water and wealth, and agrarian 
life here has always featured nomadism, pastoralism, stock rearing, 
and migration for trade and conquest. Medieval warriors and mer- 
chants — most famously, Rajputs and Marwaris — moved from old 
centres to acquire more wealth in regions of better farming in the east, 
north, and south. Dense population centres in the western plains are 
based on locally irrigated farms, strategic locations on trade routes, 
and extensions of political power embracing numerous similar centres 
across expanses of sparsely populated land. Trade connections to 
bordering regions on all sides and to the sea lanes are critical for the 
vitality of population centres. Like the camel — its characteristic pack 
animal — this land has always had a tendency to wander uncontrollably 
into its surroundings, making its boundaries vague. 


Central mountains 


This landscape of interlacing mountains, valleys, rivers, plateaux, and 
plains extends from Gujarat in the west, along the rim of the Gangetic 
plain in the north, to Chota Nagpur in the north-east, to the Deccan 
plateau in the south, and to the edges of the Godavari river basin in 
the south-east. Today it includes all of Madhya Pradesh, most of Bihar 
south of the Ganga, and all of Orissa outside the coastal plain. Its 
agrarian regions have formed amidst an interlaced complex of river 
basins that run in every direction to feed all rivers north of the 
Krishna and east of the Indus. The Chambal, Parvati, Betwa, and Ken 
rivers run north from the Malwa Plateau and Bundelkhand into the 
Yamuna; their valleys form historic highways into the Gangetic plain. 
The Vindhya and Satpura ranges form the valley of the Narmada river, 
which, like the Tapti to the south of the Satpuras, drains west into the 
Gulf of Cambay. The Mahi also drains Malwa into the Gulf, by 
arching north and then running south. East of Malwa and Bundelk- 
hand, in Baghelkhand, waters from the Maikala, Mahadeo, and 
Ramgarh mountains send the river Son north-east into the Ganga; 
they send the Narmada west, the Mahanadi east through Chhattisgarh 
into Orissa and the Bay of Bengal, and the Waiganga south into the 
Godavari. East of Baghelkhand, the Ranchi and Hazaribagh plateaux 


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dump the Damodar river into the Hooghly and send the Subarnarekha 
straight into the Bay of Bengal. Ringed by mountains, Chhattisgarh 
forms a bowl-shaped radial drainage basin, into which streams enter 
from all sides before joining the Mahanadi and running east into the 
Bay of Bengal. South of Chhattisgarh lie the dense hills of Bastar and 
inland Orissa, from which the Indravati drains into the Godavari. 

Like the climate in the high mountains and the northern basins, 
which it parallels geographically, the central mountain climate is dry in 
the west and wet in the east. In the west, the barren scrublands of the 
Chambal ravines — on the edge of Rajasthan — run with torrents of 
mud in the monsoon only to bake into red brick in the summer heat. 
In the east and south, tropical forests cover Jharkhand, Orissa, and 
Bastar. As in the high mountains, agrarian history in this landscape is 
dominated by interactions between mountains and valleys, forests and 
lowlands, and their respective farming communities. Farms have been 
cut historically into the forest — dry scrub in the west and tropical 
jungle in the east — fomenting interactive struggles within and among 
farmers, hunters, and pastoralists. This is a landscape in which shifting 
cultivation and tribal populations have been most prominent; and the 
largest tribal groups live here — the Bhils in the west, the Gonds in the 
central regions, and the Santals in the east.?” More than in the high 
mountains — because of better soils, wider valleys, longer summers, 
and constant invasions by agrarian powers on all sides — the trend in 
land use and social power here has strongly favoured the hegemony of 
lowland farming communities and the expansion of more intensive 
farming regimes among hill people. Farms today show great variety in 
techniques and options, ranging from irrigated wheat farms in the 
Narmada and upper Chambal valleys to vast rice mono-cropping in 
Chhattisgarh, to shifting cultivation in Bastar, and to mixed forestry 
and millet farming in Baghelkhand. This variety parallels the great 
variety of social formations, which combine tribal and caste elements 
more widely and intensely than anywhere in South Asia. Intensive 
farming is most dominant where soil, water, and states have favoured 
the formation of a few extensively controlled, homogenised tracts — in 


27 K.S. Singh, People of India, National Series, Volume III, The Scheduled Tribes, Delhi, 
1994, cites 1981 census figures as follows: all the groups of Bhils totalled 7,367,973 in 
southern Rajasthan, western Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat, and northern Maharashtra (p. 118); 
the many Gond groups added up to 7,388,463, spread over seven states but with 5,349,883 in 
Madhya Pradesh (p. 294); and Santal groups comprised 4,260,842 people in Bihar, West 
Bengal, Orissa, and Tripura (p. 1041). 


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the Narmada valley (which benefits from deposits of black cotton 
soil), the upper Chambal valley, the Waiganga valley (Gondwana), and 
Chhattisgarh. Khandesh and Berar participate in the history of the 
central mountains, but also in that of the interior peninsula. 


The interior peninsula 


This semi-arid landscape consists of river basins and interfluvial plains, 
and its agricultural character derives from lines of drainage, seams of 
good soil, and underground water tucked away in the rocky substrate 
of the Deccan Trap. Geologically, these features come from the 
volcanoes which left behind caverns of underground rock, boulders 
on the land, and black soil under foot. The Deccan Trap holds water 
to facilitate labour-intense but rich cultivation under well irrigation. 
The peninsula is cross-cut by the Ajanta and Balaghat mountains in 
the north, and its surface is strewn with sometimes dramatic rock 
outcrops and disconnected mountains. In the south-east, the outcrops 
become the Nallamalais, Eastern Ghats, Javadi Hills, Shevaroy Hills, 
and Pachaimalai Hills, which punctuate the descent of the peninsula 
into the eastern coastal plain. Framed by the Eastern Ghats, south of 
the Godavari, by the Western Ghats in the west, and by central 
mountains in north-east, the interior peninsula landscape touches the 
western plains in Gujarat, where Saurashtra forms the north-western 
corner of the Deccan Trap. 

South of the Tapti and Narmada, all the big rivers of the peninsula 
drain the Western Ghats and run for most of their distance across 
predominantly dry, flat plateaux, which slope from west to east 
behind the Western Ghats, on the north-west-south-east bias of the 
Krishna—Godavari system. Fertile black soils run in wide seams along 
the Narmada basin, the upper Godavari river in Maharashtra, and all 
along the Krishna river and its tributaries in Karnataka, the Bhima, 
and Tungabhadra. Outside the black soil tracts, the northern Deccan 
soil is predominantly medium black; and the southern soils in 
Karnataka and upland Tamil Nadu are mixtures of red with patches of 
black. All these soils are quite fertile when water is sufficient — which 
it usually is not — and the blacker the soil is, the better it can produce 
good crops with meagre moisture. 

Getting enough water is the main problem for farmers, because 
most of this land is in the rain shadow of the western Ghats; and 
everywhere, monsoons are fickle. Historically, intensive agriculture 


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has expanded outward from places that are favoured by rivers and 
good soils. As in other landscapes, a rainfall gradient runs from west 
to east, and a north-west-south-east gradient is also inscribed across 
the peninsula by drainage water which can be used for irrigation. In 
the Maharashtra Deccan, wells provide most irrigation from under- 
ground supplies, even today, after the spread of large river dams and 
canals. But on the Karnataka plateau and north-east to Hyderabad and 
Warangal, irrigation from tanks formed by walls built across routes of 
drainage becomes more important. Tanks multiply further to the 
south-east. The gradual increase in drainage from north-west to south- 
east has allowed parallel increases in irrigated acreage, multiple crop- 
ping, and population density; but a major hole in this gradation lies in 
the very dry north Deccan interior and in the Pennar—Krishna 
interfluve (Anantapur, Bellary, Kurnool, Adoni, Raichur, Bijapur), 
where numerous tanks have long supported meagre irrigation and 
sparse population. As we will see, there is some evidence of desiccation 
in the driest parts of the interior peninsula since the early nineteenth 
century. 

Agriculture has expanded over centuries into three forest types that 
distinguish the peninsula from the natural steppe land of thorny 
shrubs in Punjab, Rajasthan, and Gujarat. Originally, dry tropical 
forest of deciduous trees covered the flatlands. By 1900, it was reduced 
to more or less tree-covered savannah. Monsoon forests that lost their 
leaves in the dry season (providing natural manure) once covered the 
slopes of the high plateaux and eastern Ghats; and they were also once 
full of teak, most of which is now gone. Rain forest, evergreen, 
covered the western Ghats historically, and much of it remains. Into 
each forest type, farms pushed over the centuries, and, overall, the 
peninsula’s north-west-south-east gradient organised the geographical 
diversity of agro-technological milieus. Pastoralism and long-fallow 
millet cultivation dominated the driest parts, especially north and 
west, into the nineteenth century. Shortening fallow and well irriga- 
tion enabled more intense dry farming to take over where rainfall, 
technology, and water table allow. Rainfall and drainage have long 
made wet paddy cultivation more prominent in the south. Variegated 
soil and water conditions create various cropping regions, in which 
millets, cotton, and oilseeds predominate, with patches of intensive 
well cultivation and irrigated paddy (especially in the south) and also 
expanses of animal raising and pastoralism, especially in the north. 


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Coastal plains 


This composite landscape along the sea coast is formed of river valleys, 
plains, and deltas and their adjacent interfluvial flatlands; everywhere 
it includes the immediately adjacent uplands and mountain sides, and 
it is dominated agriculturally by the riverine plains, alluvial soils, and 
paddy fields. Its mountain border on the west coast and its proximity 
in the east to the tropical depressions that form the winter monsoon in 
the Bay of Bengal bring this landscape much more rain than the 
interior peninsula. On the whole, it is more tropical in appearance, 
even its driest parts along the Tamil and Andhra coast in the south- 
east. It is a borderland with the ocean, and this creates a fishery 
ecology and social life along the beach that is an integral part of its 
agrarian history, as are the coastal sea trade and connections to sea 
coasts everywhere in the Indian Ocean, Bay of Bengal, and Arabian 
Sea. Some of its constituent territories are also relatively isolated from 
inland corridors — Chittagong, Orissa, parts of Kerala, and, above all, 
Sri Lanka - and coastal regions communicate most intensively by sea, 
often more so with one another than by land with adjacent inland 
territories. The Tamil and Kerala coasts are thus part of a cultural 
space that also embraces coastal Sri Lanka, and the cultural traffic 
between the South Asian littoral and Southeast Asia has been con- 
stantly influential over the centuries. Bengal’s most prominent histor- 
ical connections have run along water ways to Orissa, Assam, and 
Bihar. Migrations are common among these coastal regions, which 
logically have similarities in diet (featuring more fish) and in occupa- 
tions, with more fishing communities and water transportation. Rice is 
the dominant food grain everywhere in this watery landscape. 


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The long history of agriculture is of countless ecological interventions 
that have given nature its civility, and imparted personality to the land, 
as people have cut down forests, diverted rivers, built lakes, killed 
predators, tamed, bred, and slaughtered animals, and burnt, dug, and 
axed natural growth to replace it with things that people desire. 
Farming occurs in a land of emotion, and agrarian territories need 
gods, poetry, ritual, architecture, outsiders, frontiers, myths, border- 
lands, landmarks, and families, which give farms meaning and purpose. 
Together, brute power and refined aesthetics culture the land, and war 
is so prominent in old poetry because making a homeland is violent 
business. In the long span of agrarian history, therefore, a great variety 
of skills have combined to make nature a natural environment, and 
agrarian territories have emerged historically much like cuisine. 
Clearing the land and sculpting the fields create a place for the nurture 
and collection of ingredients. Skilled labour selects, cultivates, kills, 
dresses, chops, and grinds. Fuels, pots, knives, axes, hoes, mortar and 
pestle, and many other implements are involved in making all the daily 
meals and special feasts that sustain work, family, and community. 
Like a farmer’s home territory, a cuisine’s complexity and refinement 
always develop within networks of exchange and specialisation, 
because materials, ideas, techniques, and tastes come from many 
sources; but each cuisine also emerges inside spaces of cultured 
accumulation and experimentation, in which people experience their 
place in the world, territorially, as they make their very own set of 
special ingredients into appropriate foods for appropriate occasions. 
Radiocarbon dates indicate that people were inventing agriculture in 
various parts of South Asia 7500 years before the Common Era (BCE).! 


' Carbon-14 dates indicate the indigenous, multiple origins for agrarian communities in 
the valleys of the Ganga and Belan rivers (in the Vindhyas) over the millennia before 7000 
BCE, which included plant and animal domestication, changing food habits, seed selection, 
population growth, and the cultivation of rice (oryza sativa). See G. R. Sharma, V. D. Misra, 
D. Mandal, B. B. Misra, and J. N. Pal, Beginnings of Agriculture: From Hunting and Food 
Gathering to Domestication of Plants and Animals. Studies in History, Culture, and 
Archaeology, Volume IV, Allahabad, 1980, pp. 30-1. 


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Indus Valley cities appear abruptly in the third millennium BCE at 
intersections of huge zones of farming and pastoralism which left 
behind archaeological remains over a million square miles running 
from Iran to Awadh and Afghanistan to Gujarat. The oldest ploughed 
field yet to be excavated dates to the early Harappan period, circa 2600 
BCE, and at this time, pastoral peoples also moved routinely in the 
summer from the high mountains in Baluchistan west into Iran and 
east into the valley of the Indus. Pastoral encampments dominate early 
archaeological records in the western plains and mountains. Evidence 
of permanent farming increases during the Harappan period and 
clusters along the lower Indus and the old Saraswati river. Painted grey 
ware sites indicate that the Saraswati retreated steadily and disappeared 
during the first millennium BCE. Mohenjo-daro was surrounded by 
small settlements of farmers and herders along networks of trade and 
migration; and, in post-Harappa centuries, agro-pastoral societies 
expanded their reach and impact. Today, in Saurashtra, earthen 
mounds rise up on the land in open spaces between wealthy Gujarati 
farming villages and contain evidence of agro-pastoral settlement and 
circulation. Prehistoric herders moved their animals among watery 
places as some dug in to farm the land and produced variously stable 
farming communities here and there. 

The regulation, extension, and elaboration of social power to 
organise the interaction of farming and herding formed ancient 
agrarian territories that come into better view in the last millennium 
BCE. Ritual was critical; we can see this at Harappa. Vedic hymns 
indicate that, around 1500 BCE, agro-pastoral people who performed 
Vedic rituals were moving south from Haryana and east down the 
Gangetic basin. We can imagine this movement as an extensive pursuit 
of water and new farmland, but the hymns also record the spread of 
Vedic rituals among different societies of herders and farmers during 
an eastward expansion of agro-pastoralism, which eventually moved 
into the eastern jungles, where it met other farming societies. The 
hymns tell of the fire god Agni burning his way eastward under the 
patronage of a human lord of the sacrifice, the jajman, who ruled and 
protected his people. Forty or so generations of farmers must have 
burned and cut their away into Gangetic forests, carving the rim land 
and the lowlands of the basin, learning to use iron tools, and inventing 
a new cuisine full of meat, rice, spices, and vegetables, before docu- 
mented agrarian history begins in the middle of the first millennium 


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BCE, in the region of Magadha, around the sites of Rajagrha and 
Pataliputra, in Bihar. It is most probable that a spread of Vedic rituals 
among ancient peoples occurred alongside migrations by Indo-Aryan 
language speakers moving down the Ganga basin; but the ritual nexus 
would certainly have embraced ever more diverse populations as the 
old rice-growing cultures of the humid tropics in the east made their 
independent contributions to the rise of agrarian culture in ancient 
Bihar. As agro-pastoralism and warrior migrations connected the 
eastern Ganga basin to Iran, Afghanistan, and the Indus—Saraswati 
cultural complex, the people living in the eastern rain forests and the 
riverine travellers among littoral sites around the Ganga delta and Bay 
of Bengal must have contributed to the rise of rice-growing farm 
societies in Magadha. By the end of the first millennium BCE, Indo- 
Aryan linguistic evidence mingled with Dravidian and other cultural 
forms in agrarian sites scattered from the Indus to the Brahmaputra 
and south of the Vindhyas to Kanya Kumari. A number of distinctive 
ritual and social complexes emerged, marked by many regionally 
specific artefacts, such as megaliths and burial urns in the southern- 
most peninsula. The absorption of tribal peoples into the ritual 
complex that slowly evolved from Vedic rites gave rise to numerous 
animal deities and blood sacrifices missing in early Vedic texts. 

When imagining the oldest periods of the agrarian past — for which 
empirical evidence is steadily increasing, forming a vast puzzle with an 
unknown number of missing pieces — we must contend with the old 
view that ancient states evolved with the progress of Aryan conquest, 
during Aryan elite differentiation, and with the incorporation of 
native peoples into an Aryan political and social order, described in 
Sanskrit texts. Most scholars have discarded this narrative but it still 
appears in many textbooks. There were actually no Aryan people as 
such (defined either as a race or as a linguistic or ethnic group). 
Rather, what we have is a number of texts that reflect the linguistic 
elements that scholars classify as ‘Indo-Aryan’; and these texts, spread 
over many centuries and locations, convey a number of ritual, 
prescriptive, descriptive, and narrative messages, whose authorship, 
audience, influence, and cultural coherence remain debatable. 
Archaeological evidence constitutes an increasing proportion of our 
evidence on ancient sites, and indicates that a number of connected 
cultures were developing separately in many parts of South Asia. 
Various trajectories of historical change can be proposed using avail- 


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able evidence; and various indigenous peoples with their own histories 
in the eastern Gangetic basin, adjacent hills, nearby coastal areas, and 
across the Bay of Bengal must have played a significant part in the rise 
of ancient Magadha. Ancient India’s many histories intersected, 
diverged, and travelled independently, so that instead of a linear trend 
connecting the RgVeda and the Mauryas, we can generate many open- 
ended hypotheses to account for shifts among various forms of socio- 
political order. Increasingly complex forms of social organisation — 
state institutions and imperial dynasties — did evolve in the last half of 
the first millennium BCE, but the shift that Romila Thapar has 
described as a general movement from lineage polities to full-fledged 
states did not constitute a comprehensive evolutionary shift toward 
state formation and away from older forms of lineage society. Very 
old and very new forms of social, political, and economic organisation 
coexisted and interacted, as they would continue to do for many 
centuries. Ancient South Asia was a universe of small societies in 
which some of the more powerful groups left us records to indicate 
some of their most prominent features. Famous ancient states arose in 
the eastern flood plain at the intersection of trade routes, and territorial 
markers in ancient texts indicate sites and peoples around them. One 
striking continuity between the days of Harappa and of the Mauryan 
empire is the importance of trade and migration among sites in South 
Asia, Central Asia, and the Indian Ocean basin. 

In this context, agriculture expanded within individually named 
territories that were called janapadas and mahajanapadas, The proper 
names for these kinds of territories appear in epigraphy throughout 
much of the first millennium. In Magadha and the Maurya heartland, 
ancient agriculture seems to have been more intensive — combining 
more labour and supporting more non-farming elites per unit of land 
— over a larger territory than anywhere else in the subcontinent. Two 
lines of development converged here. Technological change in metal- 
lurgy, irrigation, plant breeding, and farming techniques facilitated 
more intensive farming; in this, the old rice cultures around the Bay of 
Bengal and minerals from Chota Nagpur and Jharkhand would have 
been significant. Alliances among warriors, traders, ritualists, and 
farmers formed the state institutions that connected settlements to one 
another, connected farms to sources of iron ore, and disciplined labour 
(for farming, fighting, building, hauling, mining, smelting, forest 
clearing, and other work) to produce an expanding agrarian territory 


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around the central urban sites of dynastic authority in the eastern 
Ganga basin. Ancient material and social technologies of agrarian 
power spread together. State authority and intensive agricultural 
production moved together and depended upon one another. Dynastic 
capitals rose along routes of trade and migration across landscapes 
filled with many types of farming settlements. Kautilya’s Arthasastra 
reflects a compilation of elements that pertain to the Maurya core zone 
over a period of about seven hundred years, down to the time of the 
Guptas, and indicates that here state institutions did exert direct power 
in agriculture. But not so much elsewhere. Most agrarian territories 
that felt the fleeting impact of Maurya power were inhabited predomi- 
nantly by pastoralists, shifting cultivators, and small settled farming 
communities. Agro-pastoral societies along the model of the post- 
Harappa sites in Gujarat must have remained a typical form 
throughout dry landscapes of the north, west, and central peninsula 
well into the first millennium. In most janapadas, the Mauryan empire 
seems to have consisted of strategic urban sites on routes of trade and 
conquest, connected loosely to vast hinterlands. 

Independent but connected agrarian histories were under way in 
many areas during Mauryan times; this is indicated by the many new 
centres of power that enter the historical record in the first centuries of 
the Common Era. In Maurya times, Sri Lanka and Cambodia would 
have formed an outer rim of interconnected, rice-growing territories. 
Puskalavati, Taxila, and Gandhara arose along the upper Indus and 
Kabul rivers, along overland trade routes in the north-west. Satava- 
hana inscriptions show new state authorities rising in the peninsula, 
around Pratisthana in Berar, Girinagara in Saurashtra, Amaravati in 
the Krishna—Godavari delta, and Vanavasi in the southern Deccan. In 
the far south, Sangam literature reflects another emerging agrarian 
culture. Buddhist and Jain texts depict many pre-Gupta urban sites 
along old trade routes from north to south, which like Kanchipuram 
thrived in agricultural settings; and, by the second century, we can see 
Buddhist sites in most riverine and coastal areas in which medieval 
dynasties would later thrive. In the fourth century, when the Guptas 
sought to extend their own empire, they faced stiff opposition, and 
they never did conquer the Vakatakas, who succeeded the Satavahanas 
in the north Deccan. 

The Gupta empire produced a new kind of articulation between 
state institutions and social power in agriculture. The Mauryas had 


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thrown impressive land bridges across many janapadas, among islands 
of farming in the sea of pastoralism, and they concentrated their 
power in urban sites along extensive routes of trade and transport. The 
Gupta imperium launched a conquest of the janapadas by farming. 
Mauryas travelled a more extensive empire. Guptas were more down 
to earth, A Gupta core zone of intensive agriculture expanded 
westward to include not only Magadha and adjacent Vaisali and 
Videha but also janapadas around ancient Allahabad (Prayaga) and 
Ayodhya (at Kasi and Kosala). Gupta agrarian power also expanded 
north and south toward the hills on both sides of the Ganga basin as it 
embraced a larger number and diversity of farming peoples. Gupta 
rituals sanctified agrarian kingship. State-sponsored religious institu- 
tions (temples), elites (Brahmans), and sacred texts sanctified land as 
they incorporated local community leaders. Historians have shown 
how the Gupta system empowered rising elites outside the imperial 
court in a ritualised state which had expansive capacities for political 
inclusion. Gupta ritual techniques for alliance-building were adopted 
widely and adapted to many local conditions from the third century 
onward. Saiva, Vaishnava, and Buddhist cult institutions combined 
with state authority to create powerful but flexible agrarian alliances 
among farmers, warriors, merchants, ritualists, kings, and literati. 
Sanctification constituted real social power with tangible benefits for 
its participants, and its social production and meaning changed over 
the centuries as sanctity attached to more and more land in culturally 
distinct, interconnected territories. With scattered evidence from lit- 
erary sources, we can dimly see how Vedic rituals had helped to 
organise agrarian power in a world of agro-pastoralism. Vedic ritual 
pacified conflict between nomadic pastoralists and sedentary farmers 
and formed stable structures of alliance by sanctifying the performance 
of ritual and the composition of community. Ancient myths depict 
battles between herders and farmers as supernatural struggles between 
devas and asuras; and ritualistic gambling — performed with the 
injunction, “Play the cow for rice!’ — may represent ‘a sacrificial contest 
[that] could also be put to work to regulate and sanction conquest, 
tribute levying, overlordship and generally, state formation’? Ex- 
panding the scope of agrarian territoriality involved the elaboration 


2 J. C. Heesterman, “Warrior, Peasant and Brahmin’, Modern Asian Studies, 29, 3, 1995, 
645, 649. 


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and adaptation of ritual negotiations in countless new competitive 
settings in each agrarian landscape. Rituals spread and changed form as 
they proved effective in creating stable alliances in a world in which 
communities of settled farmers were certainly a minority. 

Pastoralism occupied much of the subcontinent until later medieval 
times. When Indus Valley urbanism disappeared, its culture dispersed 
into mostly pastoral surroundings. Rgvedic society was pastoral. The 
Mahabharata depicts a society full of pastoralism. Krishna was born 
among Yadava cattle herders and many gods have similar origins 
among hunters and pastoral people. Sangam poetry describes five 
ecological regions and only one is sedentary. The ancient Tamil 
mountain, forest, wasteland, and seashore regions were the home of 
tribes, hunters, gatherers, nomads, and travellers. Hero stones across 
the peninsula record the pre-eminence of cattle raiding as a political 
activity in the first millennium. Old Tamil society was probably 
conquered from the peninsular steppe by nomads called Kalabhras in 
the fourth century. South Asia is in fact part of a vast historical space 
in which pastoralism is very prominent, stretching from Mongolia 
across Central Asia, Syria, and Egypt to the Maghreb and Sahel. In 
this wider world of arid climates, pastoralism has historically sur- 
rounded and permeated agrarian landscapes in which farms cluster 
around water sources along trade routes. South Asia is a borderland 
between this world of pastoralism and humid Southeast Asia, where 
dense forest and intensive agriculture exclude nomads herding large 
flocks. In the eastern wet lands, rice typifies agriculture, natural forest 
is very dense, domestic animals breeding was challenged until quite 
recently by tiger populations, and nomadic pastoralism is quite 
foreign. But in the west and the peninsular interior of South Asia, dry 
agrarian space is more like south-west and central Asia, where millets 
and wheat dominate field crops, thirst and drought preoccupy society, 
lowland forests are predominantly scrub, herds abound, and nomads 
pervade agrarian history. Ancient states in South Asia arose at the 
intersection of these two very different worlds of agrarian ecology. 

In the first millennium, the creation of landscapes of settled 
agriculture moved ahead more rapidly, as agrarian institutions pro- 
moted ritual negotiations to solve conflicts among farmers, pastoral- 
ists, warriors, merchants, forest dwellers, and many others. Agrarian 
territories expanded when conflicts could be resolved routinely by 
stable institutions of social power and authority. War could destroy 


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social routines that stabilised territory and routinely allowed the 
jungle and wild animals to invade farmland that had previously 
nurtured piety and nobility. Farming communities became increas- 
ingly populous and complex as agrarian territories evolved to embrace 
larger and larger populations of people on the move. War became a 
cultural institution for negotiating competing interests and preventing 
war from destroying structures of agrarian stability was a critical 
secret of agrarian success. In the sixteenth century, the A’in-i Akbari 
and other sources support speculation that nearly 20 per cent of the 
population depended on fighting for their livelihood, which of course 
meant travelling much of the time. Armies would pillage some farms 
to provision warriors who returned with their loot to their own farms 
when battles were done. The dry season was always a time for 
fighting; drought sent villages out to fight for food; and armies 
subsisted in turn on pillaging drought-stricken villages, causing com- 
munities to flee to fortress towns or to go out in search of new land. 
Migrations by whole communities were common and many agricul- 
tural sites have thus been settled and resettled, historically, over and 
over again. Herders heading to the hills in the summer and back down 
to the lowlands with the monsoon, seasonal worker migrations, 
people fleeing war and drought, army suppliers and camp followers, 
artisans moving from town to town, farmers moving into new settle- 
ments looking for new land, traders, nomads, shifting cultivators, 
hunters, pilgrims, and transporters would have added up to perhaps 
half the total population at almost any point in most regions during 
centuries before 1800. What we call ‘sedentary agriculture’, therefore, 
was not really sedentary. Reigning social powers settled, inhabited, 
identified with, and controlled territories of agricultural investment 
and political order, but farmers worked within institutions that 
embraced many conflicting social forces, many of which were con- 
stantly on the move. 

Gupta-era institutions developed new capacities to control territory 
by sanctifying the land and by establishing rules of dharma (religious 
duty) that disciplined labour for the co-ordinated performance of all 
the activities of agriculture. In Sri Lanka, Anuradhapura was the 
centre of a Buddhist empire of irrigated agriculture that expanded 
across the dry north of the island in the first millennium, at the same 
time as the Guptas began seriously to sedentarise Bharat. Maurya 
conquest had first defined the territory of Bharat as a triangle with its 


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apex in the eastern Ganga, in the sacred precincts of Magahda, Kasi, 
and Kosala, and with its base in the fertile parts of Rajasthan. The 
northern leg of the triangle ran west-north-west up across submontane 
Punjab and the Khyber pass; and its southern leg ran west-south-west 
down the Narmada into Gujarat. The western frontiers of ancient 
Bharat thus ran north-south; and at the base of the triangle lay 
Gandhara in the north and Nasika in the south. The Gupta’s version 
of Bharat was concentrated in the agrarian lowlands. Samudragupta’s 
fourth-century Allahabad inscription divides Gupta conquests into 
four categories, which correspond roughly with the literary geography 
found in the Puranas. In the territory called Aryavarta, the inscription 
says, rulers were subdued and territories brought under Gupta admin- 
istration — in the Ganga plain, Naga domains (Bundelkhand and 
Malwa), Kota territory (around Delhi and Bulandshahr), and Pundra- 
vardhana and Vanga (in Bengal). These became Puranic home terri- 
tories, called desa. Here, Gupta cities — Prayaga (Allahabad), Benares, 
and Pataliputra (Patna) — provided ideological reference points for the 
sacred geography of Bharat. The sanctity of Bharat would bolster 
agrarian power in many medieval territories. But Puranic desa did not 
explicitly include the highlands around the Ganga basin, nor the Indus 
valley, Punjab, and western Rajasthan. Puranas describe the desa of 
Bharat as Purva-desa, Madhya-desa, and Aparanta desa, which 
embraced the Ganga lowlands, north Bengal, the Brahmaputra valley, 
Avanti (Malwa), Gujarat, Konkan, and the Deccan around Nasik. Old 
janapadas which lay outside the land of the desa would have been 
frontiers and peripheries of the Gupta regime. The western plains, 
Punjab, high mountains, central mountains, and coast and interior 
peninsula outside Nasika-Konkana are not called desa in Puranas, but 
rather asreya, patha, and pristha? 

The Gupta imperium fell apart in the late fifth century as new 
dynasties detached Saurashtra, Malwa, Bundelkhand, and Baghelk- 


hand; as Vakatakas expanded from the northern Deccan into Dakshina 


3 In the other three areas of Gupta conquest, the regime seems to have been indirect at 
best. The Allahabad inscription says that in Dakshinapatha (south of the central mountains), 
Dakshina Kosala (Chhattisgarh), Mahakantara (inland Orissa), and the lands of the Kalingas 
(on the Andhra-Orissa coast) and Pallavas (on the Tamil coast) rulers were conquered and 
restored to their thrones as tributaries. Rulers scattered in the mountains and plains frontiers 
— who numbered five in the east and north and nine in the west — were forced to pay tribute. 
In the far periphery, Kusanas, Murundas, and Sakas in the north-west and peoples of 
Simhala (Sri Lanka) were also said to have paid tribute. See Joseph E. Schwartzberg, 
Historical Atlas of South Asia, Chicago, 1978, pp. 27, 179, 182-3. 


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Kosala, Baghelkhand, and Malwa; and as Hunas conquered the low- 
lands along routes running south and east from the north-western 
highlands. Puranic authors called this Kali Yuga, but the idea that a 
classical age collapsed with the fall of the Guptas pertains at best to 
Gupta core regions and their ruling elites. Many historians describe 
the second half of the first millennium as an age of political fragmenta- 
tion and regionalisation, but this imagery fits only janapadas in Bharat 
and Puranic desa in Aryavarta. Gupta centres may have been the 
wealthiest in the subcontinent but most people lived outside Gupta 
territory. In fact, agrarian history outside Bharat comes into much 
better focus after the Guptas, as social powers which had been 
nurtured in the Gupta realm disperse and develop. Many new regimes 
now took up the project of protecting dharma and formed a cultural 
basis for medieval dynasties. As regimes of royalty and ritual multi- 
plied after the fall of the Guptas, they produced new historical 
documentation. Inscriptions on stone and copper provide raw material 
for medieval historiography and their interpretation continues to be 
filled with unresolved debates. Two debates are most important here. 
One concerns ‘the Indian state’ in medieval centuries. Should it be 
understood as bureaucratic, feudal, segmentary, patrimonial, or some- 
thing else? The other concerns the mode of production, and specifi- 
cally whether European models of feudalism or Marx’s model of the 
Asiatic mode of production apply in South Asia. Both debates hinge 
on the effort to reconstruct typical or characteristic institutional forms 
in medieval South Asia. But instead of looking for ‘the medieval state’, 
we can examine the range of institutions that organised social power 
during the expansion and intensification of agriculture. Instead of 
describing ‘the mode of production’, we can try to outline the 
working of social power in agriculture, keeping in view the great 
diversity of agrarian conditions. 


PEASANTRY 


Most information for medieval history comes from inscriptions that 
record donations of land, animals, and other assets to Brahmans and to 
temples to support Vedic knowledge, dharma, and rituals for Puranic 
deities. Donations typically come from named, titled individuals, 
acting under dynastic authority; and they typically name donors, 
recipients, protectors, and asset holders, who are often members of 


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farming communities. Donative inscriptions often depict the transfer 
of land entitlements to Brahmans in the name of — or at the behest of — 
a king. They represent a transactional nexus that involves dynastic 
royalty (warrior-kings and their families, officials, and retainers), 
Brahmans (individually and in groups, Vedic scholars, ritualists, and 
temple administrators), and agricultural communities (farmers, 
herders, artisans, and merchants). Brahmans are pivotal figures and the 
most obvious beneficiaries, and in other ways, too, the agrarian power 
of Brahmans is quite apparent in the second half of the first millen- 
nium. As farm territory multiplied and expanded, Brahmans produced 
more agricultural literature. One elusive persona, Kasyapa (perhaps a 
mythical authority rather than a single author), wrote that ‘for pleasing 
the gods and protecting the people, the king should take keen interest 
in agriculture’, and further he said, ‘Agriculture should be practised by 
priests, Brahmanas and ministers particularly.’ He tells the king to 
mine ‘iron, copper, gold, [and] silver’, to have agricultural implements 
made by ‘expert iron smiths, cutters, and goldsmiths in villages and 
cities’, and to ‘distribute these among the village people’.* The role of 
the good king in linking together various agricultural activities is clear 
in these injunctions, and kings in Sri Lanka, Nepal, and many places in 
medieval South Asia seem to have followed this advice. Dozens of 
dynasties emerged from the sixth century onward, complete with 
centres of production and rising aggregate farm yields where Brah- 
mans recorded, created, and propagated agricultural knowledge. 

The Kamba Ramayana, Krsisukti, Vrksa Ayurveda, and Paryaya- 
muktavali are among the texts that describe irrigated tracts in the 
south, east, and north. The distribution of inscriptions also leads to the 
conclusion that, in the early-medieval period, the organised social 
effort to build agrarian territories was concentrated spatially in 
irrigated tracts in the lowlands, near riverbeds throughout the 
northern basins, the coastal plains, and the Deccan, Maharashtra, 
Gujarat, Malwa, and Rajasthan. Inscriptions record investments in 
fixed assets — irrigation tanks, dams, wells, channels, paddy fields, 
temples, towns, markets, and cities — and transactions in networks of 
exchange, marriage, ritual, and dynastic authority, which connected 
settlements to one another. Inscriptions describe a world of kings, 
Brahmans, and temple deities that constituted medieval agrarian 


4 M.S. Randhawa, A History of Agriculture in India, Delhi, 1986, vol. 1, p. 484. 


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territory physically, socially, morally, and mythologically. Inscrip- 
tional prasastis (preambles) narrate dynastic genealogies (vamsavalli) 
and map royalty into social territory, and devotional poetry and 
temples likewise brought the gods into the farming landscape. Med- 
ieval Tamil poems such as the Tevaram depict a sacred geography of 
Shiva temples that sanctified the land much more extensively and 
intensively than did the Sangam poetic accounts of Murugan cult sites 
in the Tirumurugattruppadai or post-Sangam accounts of Buddhist 
centres in the Manimekalai (in the Gupta age). Territorial power and 
symbolism are more definitely documented in early-medieval litera- 
ture and inscriptions; and intensive, sedentary farming — particularly 
using irrigation — required more control over land and labour, as farms 
advanced forcefully into space inhabited by pastoralists, nomads, 
forest people, hunters, wild animals, and malevolent spirits. Building 
agrarian territory was difficult and contested. It was not peaceful. 
Farms carved up nature, enclosed open land, and commandeered the 
physical world to constitute civilisation on the frontiers of farming. 
Taming the landscape meant displacing forms of land use and social 
life other than those represented by kings and gods, who spread the 
rule of dharma. Expanding intensive agriculture involved disciplining 
workers, coordinating their activities, and reorganising the allocation 
of resources. Medieval inscriptions recorded events in this process — as 
a technology-of-record — in compact agrarian territories. 

Many types of agrarian societies came into being. A general contrast 
emerged between the wetter eastern landscapes and the coastal plains, 
on the one hand, and the drier west and interior peninsula, on the 
other, which was based on broad differences between wet and dry 
cultivation. In the humid wetlands, wild animals, disease, dense jungle, 
forest people, and floods posed the roughest obstacles to the expansion 
of permanent field cultivation. In semi-arid regions, by contrast, the 
worst battles were waged against pastoral people and warrior nomads, 
whose income was readily enhanced by raids on farming villages, 
whose grazing lands were being converted into farmland, and whose 
herds were being captured and domesticated. In the drier landscapes, 
settlements were more scattered and pastoral nomad warriors more 
prominent. Walled towns were more common, and long-distance 
trade was more visible in dynastic core settlements where military 
activity was a permanent adjunct to farming. In the wetter landscapes, 
farmers needed more labour to carve out fields from jungle; the higher 


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nutritional output of paddy fields also sustained denser populations 
and a higher proportion of non-cultivating elites. Dry regions grew 
millets and, in the north, wheat; their population was thinner and 
elites depended on trade and wide systems of exchange and expropria- 
tion. Wet, dry, agro-pastoral, forest, fishing, and other kinds of 
settlements were generally mixed together in agrarian territories, 
which would have at their centre a central place of power and 
authority. Inscriptions often reflect a cultural hierarchy that distin- 
guished the more cultivated central settlements from surrounding 
hamlets that were part of the territory but less cultured and privileged. 

The medieval states that produced inscriptions had a basic commit- 
ment to the expansion of permanent field cultivation as the foundation 
of their power, and dharma was the moral code that stabilised their 
territory. The weakness of agrarian territorialism and thus of the rule 
of dharma is apparent throughout the first millennium, when many 
wars recorded in inscriptions no doubt reflect a breakdown of 
territorial institutions during violent conflicts among sedentary 
farmers, pastoralists, shifting cultivators, hunters, warriors, and forest 
dwellers. Pastoral and tribal polities often opposed the rule of dharma 
successfully. But pastoral and tribal peoples also became powerful in 
lowland territories of settled cultivation and their role was particularly 
pronounced in the western plains, central mountains, Punjab, western 
Gangetic basin, and the interior peninsula. Rajput rulers came to 
recognise Bhil chiefs as allies, for instance, and an 1890 account depicts 
the central role of Bhil chiefs in Rajput coronation ceremonies.” As 
permanent field cultivation conquered agrarian landscapes, farm by 
farm, pastoralism, nomadism, and forest cultivators were increasingly 
pushed to the margins, and many herders, hunters, nomads, and tribal 
people also entered agrarian society, becoming labourers, farmers, 
craft producers, animal breeders and keepers, transporters, dairy 
producers, soldiers, traders, warriors, sorcerers, and kings. This 
transformation of the land involved very long transitions and subtle 
changes in social identity, which further differentiated agrarian socie- 
ties. It also involved a lot of violence, which can be seen refracted in 
mythical stories about the conquest of demons by gods. Many 
vamcavalis (introductory invocations) depict battles against tribal 
peoples who are viewed as enemies of civilised society. The Ramayana 


5 K.S. Singh, People of India: The Scheduled Tribes, Delhi, 1994, p. 119. 


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was reproduced in many forms, attesting to the wide relevance of its 
central theme: the struggle and triumph of civilisation in a land of 
demons and mlecchas (barbarians). The Mughals would take special 
precautions to protect farmers against hill tribes as they pushed 
farming into the higher valleys. As agricultural territories expanded 
and multiplied, they came to include more diverse populations, not 
only many different kinds of farmers (including families who worked 
their own plots and families who used others to cultivate their fields) 
but also non-farming groups whose work and assets were essential for 
farming (artisans, cattle herders, hunters, transporters, traders, collec- 
tors of forest produce, well-diggers, priests, engineers, architects, 
healers, astrologers, and mercenaries). Many people who came to 
work in agricultural sites came from lands that were being newly 
incorporated into agrarian territory. Without the skills, assets, and 
labour of erstwhile outsiders, agricultural expansion could not 
proceed, and their incorporation was a major social project. Open 
spaces around all farming settlements also provided plenty of opportu- 
nity for groups to set out on their own to establish independent 
communities. 

Medieval agrarian space came to consist of (1) hundreds of small 
agrarian territories with permanent field cultivation, diverse, changing 
populations, and dynastic core sites, (2) thousands of scattered settle- 
ments of farming families in the hills and plains, on the outskirts or 
margins of dynastic territory, and (3) vast interstitial areas in which 
farms were absent or temporary, featuring dry scrub-forest or dense 
tropical jungle and filled with tribal societies and polities. Almost all of 
our documentation pertains to the dynastic territories of agrarian 
expansion. This land was endowed with the best supplies of every- 
thing needed for agriculture. It was prize territory and required the 
most intense internal controls and protection. Medieval kings concen- 
trated on controlling this land, to protect their people and prosperity, 
which involved coercion as well as cultural powers to inculcate deep 
beliefs in principles and values that sustained agrarian order. Around 
core dynastic sites swirled all the activity of territorial expansion; and, 
as populations in core sites increased in number, some of their number 
would strike out to expand agrarian power. They formed scattered 
settlements that became new dynastic centres, conquered other 
farming communities, and fought for land and labour with pastoral 
and forest peoples. Non-farming populations in the hills and plains 


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often settled down to farming in the lowlands, forming their own 
distinctive communities. A separate agrarian history unfolded in the 
high mountains, of which we have little record. 

In this diversity of agrarian social forms, a ‘peasantry’ is hard to 
define. Unlike Europe, South Asia contained tropical conditions 
suitable for intensive paddy cultivation, expanses of arid and semi-arid 
plains, high-quality soils that could produce nutritious millets with 
relatively small labour inputs, vast tropical mountains and jungles, and 
large areas dominated by pastoralism — all of which sustained very 
different types of agricultural expansion and intensification, leading to 
various configurations of agrarian society. In South Asia, there was no 
analogue to the Roman empire or Catholic Church under which a 
feudal nobility could establish itself and define the peasantry as a 
category of subordinate subject. Unlike China, agrarian states in South 
Asia evolved significantly within, among, and out of pastoral cultures 
and they integrated pastoral and forest people into forms of agrarian 
society that were not embraced by the classificatory system of a single 
imperial (and ethnic, Han) heritage. Modern images of the peasant that 
come from western and eastern Eurasia — which describe a rude rustic 
living under the jurisdiction of urban elites who embody high culture 
and civilisation — do not fit medieval South Asia. 

The term ‘peasant’ can be useful to refer in a general sense to family 
farmers, and in doing so I do not mean to endorse the theory of 
peasant family farming — developed by A. V. Chayanov to counter V. 
I. Lenin’s account of peasant differentiation during capitalist develop- 
ment in Russia. Rather, I intend to highlight the role of kinship and 
farm families in agriculture; and we will see later in this chapter that 
the elaboration of kinship organised much of medieval agrarian space 
in lineages, clans, castes (jati), sects, and the four ritual ranks (varna) 
of Brahmans, Kshatriyas, Vaisyas, and Sudras, which embraced 
farmers and kings. The peasant as a family farmer has no fixed class 
status. Class divisions between peasants and lords took many forms 
and medieval farmers were encumbered by many types and degrees of 
subordination, ranging from mere tax or rent obligations for land 
entitlements to intimate personal servitude. Institutions of control and 
subordination are the subject of the remainder of this chapter. The 
most intense subordination of farm families appears to have arisen 
where very low Sudra and untouchable caste (jati) groups worked 
under Brahman and Kshatriya domination in the rice-growing Gupta 


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core territories and in early-medieval lowlands along the coastal 
plains. But this is not a general pattern. Farm families entered the 
ranks of local ruling elites in many regions of militant peasant 
colonisation. In agro-pastoral and tribal settings, family farming was a 
communal enterprise which included military control over mobile 
resources and shifting farm territories. 

The term ‘peasant’ makes the most sense when agrarian social strata 
are clearly defined by states and when status depends upon strictly 
ranked entitlements to land. This situation became more common in 
the second millennium. It began earlier in territories of warrior 
colonisation, for example, by Gurjara-Pratiharas, when conquest 
formalised the ranks of lord and peasant. After 1500, social ranks in 
some parts of South Asia came increasingly to resemble Europe, and 
after 1820, European categories came into vogue under British rule. In 
the twentieth century, many political activists call themselves ‘pea- 
sants’, modelling their usage on revolutionary Russia and China. As 
we see in chapter 4, this usage appears primarily in tenant struggles 
against landlordism, where ranked entitlements to land are at issue. In 
that context the term is ideological and normative, rather than being 
accurately descriptive. As a translation of kisan, ‘peasant’ has been 
deployed where ‘landholder’, ‘farmer’, ‘village petite bourgeoisie’, or 
even ‘tribal’ could also apply; and it is usually more accurate to refer 
to so-called peasant groups by the ethnic or jati terms that they use to 
refer to themselves. Rai’yat (or ryot), which might also translate as 
‘peasant’, attaches to people with various types of entitlements and 
class positions, as we will see. No term translates strictly as ‘peasant’, 
carrying precisely the same cultural connotations, in any South Asian 
language. As a result, we can aptly consider the rise of the utility of the 
category of ‘peasant’ in South Asia as a product and component of 
modernity and use this term to discuss the power position of small 
farmers and tenants in opposition to landlords and states. 

The term ‘gentry’ is not widely used in South Asia but it does have 
utility. Multi-caste agrarian farming elites were formed by the interac- 
tion of state elites with local patriarchies and by expanding family 
alliances, upward mobility, and the imposition of state-enforced, 
ranked entitlements to land. The term ‘gentry’ has had no place in 
official terminology in South Asia, as it has had in China, but an 
important sector of the village farming population in South Asia more 
resembles Chinese gentry than European peasants. I consider the 


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gentry to consist of relatively high-status local land-owning groups 
that marry their own kind and form alliances with other high-status 
families to expand their horizons as they redefine their ties to the land. 
Gentry families are privileged as mediators with state authorities; and, 
because of their land holding, education, and urban connections, they 
are active in commercial networks. This agrarian status elite is always 
open to new recruits. It is rural and urban, economic and cultural, 
social and political. A gentry first arose in the context of Gupta state 
rituals, which produced dominant caste alliances that came to control 
agrarian assets of all sorts, including the labour of subordinate jatis. 
The idea of a locally dominant caste cluster maps with rough 
equivalence onto my sense of what a gentry is; though a gentry does 
not need caste ideology, because other modes of status marketing can 
serve the same purposes. 


DHARMA 


Inscriptions indicate that, in the sixth century, royal Gupta lineages 
had settled down in all the regions of the Gupta realm and may have 
been settling the frontiers of Aryavarta. Ambitious lineage leaders 
may have loosened their ties to the capital as they moved further 
afield, carrying with them the apparatus of Gupta power. In frontier 
regions, they would have needed local allies, who may have under- 
mined their attachment to the Gupta dynasty. Gifts of land by kings 
and their officers to temples and Brahmans — to sustain classical 
learning, the rule of dharma, and the worship of Puranic deities — 
became a hallmark of new dynasties at the end of Gupta hegemony, 
from the sixth century onward. The Maukharis appear in the western 
reaches of the Gupta heartland, around Kanyakubja (Kanauj), in what 
would later become Awadh, and Pusyabutis emerged in the western 
Yamuna basin and Haryana. Dynastic core sites thus moved still 
further west from the ancient heartland of Bharat and so did land 
grants to Brahmans, which multiplied with the founding of new 
regimes and capital cities. In the seventh century, it is said, Harsha 
moved the Pusyabuti capital to Kanyakubja to better defend the plains 
against the Hunas, but his move also signalled the rise of the western 
parts of the Ganga basin as a new agrarian core for his dynasty. This 
event was marked by a land grant to two Brahmans. The grant was 
made by a soldier serving Harsha and protected by the janapadas in 


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Harsha’s realm, to represent the support of local community leaders. 
New dynasties and donative inscriptions also multiplied in territories 
very far from Gupta lands. On the northern Tamil coast, the Pallavas 
of Kanchipuram stepped up their donations during the Gupta decline. 
Many new dynasties marked territories in sites of intensive cultivation: 
in Kashmir, the Karkotas of Srinagar; in Bengal, Later Guptas, 
Sasankas of Karnasuvarana, and Palas of Gauda (at the top of the 
delta); in Malwa, the Paramaras of Ujjain; in Malwa and adjacent 
Deccan and Gujarat, the Kalacuris of Mahismati; in Berar (Vidarbha), 
the Rashtrakutas of Acalapura; in the Krishna-~Tungabadra doab in the 
south Deccan, the Calukyas of Vatapi; and on the south Tamil coast, 
the Pandyas of Madurai and Cholas of Tanjavur. 

At least forty new dynastic lineages were proclaimed during and 
soon after the sixth century, and from the seventh century on they 
typically construct elaborate genealogies for themselves to trace their 
origins to mythical progenitors. Migrations of Brahmans, Gupta 
princes, and Gupta generals may have influenced these early-medieval 
trends, but most new dynasties sprang up outside Aryavarta, and even 
peoples who had repulsed the Guptas later adapted technologies of 
power which Guptas had developed. Between 550 and 1250, the 
interactive expansion of agricultural and dynastic territories produced 
the basis for all the major agrarian regions of modern South Asia. This 
is the crucial formative period for agrarian history in the subcontinent. 
Though agricultural conditions, techniques, and social relations varied 
across regions, and though trends in the high mountains, western 
plains, and central mountains are not well documented, some basic 
elements which pertain to many if not most agrarian territories in this 
period appear in data from places where major dynasties were firmly 
established. We know most about elements that form the explicit 
subject matter of the inscriptions: kingship, Brahman settlements, and 
temples. 

The ritual and architectural complex now called ‘the Hindu temple’ 
emerged in full form in the later Gupta period and its elaboration and 
spread from the sixth to the fourteenth century provide us with 
dramatic medieval remains, from Mahabalipuram to Khajuraho. Med- 
ieval inscriptional records appear predominantly in temple precincts, 
which were central nodes for the accumulation of power in early- 
medieval kingdoms. By the tenth century, old theories and practices of 
kingship had been widely adapted in many new medieval territories. 


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As in Rama’s mythical realm in the epic Ramayana, protection and 
prosperity were signs of a good king; and piety, chastity, and wealth 
all came together under kings who nurtured dharma. This theme 
forms a continuity with very old ideas about kingship, as Kasyapa’s 
advice that ‘the king should take keen interest in agriculture’ resonates 
with a Tamil poet’s advice to a Pandya king, probably in the first 
centuries CE. Many medieval kings followed this advice, most specta- 
cularly in Sri Lanka. 


Oh great king, if you crave wealth in the next world 
and yearn to vanquish other kings who protect this world 
and thus to become the greatest among them 
hearing songs of praise to your glory, 
listen to me to learn what deeds guarantee these rewards. 
Those who give food give life to living beings 
who cannot live without water. 

Food is first for all living things, made of food, 
and because food is but soil and water mingled together, 
those who bring water into fields 
create living beings and life in this world. 

Even kings with vast domains strive in vain, when their land is dry 
and fields sown with seeds look only to the sky for rain. 

So Pandya king who makes dreadful war, do not mistake my words: 
quickly expand watery places that are built to bring streams to your land! 
For those who control water reap rewards 
and those who fail cannot endure. ° 


Water and ritual were critical for medieval kingship. So were innova- 
tion and adaptation. The kings who built medieval temples nurtured 
forms of dharma with distinctively medieval substance. In contrast to 
ancient prescriptions, medieval texts do not insist that a king be a 
kshatriya and, in much of the subcontinent, medieval caste (jati) 
ranking developed without the presence of all four varnas. Rajad- 
harma still meant protecting dharma, but sastras (sacred texts) now 
prescribed that kings protect local customs, so that kings could 
enshrine as dharma virtually any form of social power and style of 
social ranking. Land grants to temples and Brahmans confirm the 
adaptation of cosmic law for local purposes, by bringing Brahman 
powers of ritual sanction to bear in new agrarian territories to sanctify 
patterns of social power in Puranic temple worship. Temples were 
ritual and also political institutions. They incorporated many different 


© Purananuru, No.18, lines 13-30. 


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groups who were clearing and planting the land, building towns, and 
contracting transactional alliances, which are recorded in the inscrip- 
tions. 

The Manusmriti says that dharma includes a sacred right of first 
possession for the people who clear the land, even if they have taken 
use of the land away from others - for example, hunters and 
pastoralists - which would often have been the case. Protecting this 
right was a bedrock of royal authority. But beyond this, a king’s 
ambition extended over his neighbours (samantas), as the Pandyan 
poet indicated. Homage, tribute, and services from subordinate rulers 
(rajas) were prizes for kings who took titles like Maharajadhiraja 
(Great King of Kings) and Paramesvara (Supreme Lord). In the 
methodology of medieval kingship, gifts to Brahmans and temples 
measured and dramatised royal power. In Sri Lanka, the same 
method channelled massive patronage to Buddhist monks and mon- 
asteries from the second century BCE; and irrigation, paddy cultiva- 
tion, and monastic property expanded together until the fourteenth 
century. Like monasteries, temples managed by Brahmans often 
owned tracts of irrigated land, and individual Brahmans and 
Brahman settlements (brahmadeyas) often received grants that com- 
prised royal investments in irrigation. Like monks, Brahmans meant 
prosperity. They attracted people to agrarian sites who had skills and 
assets needed for expansion. A proliferation of texts on agriculture, 
astrology, medicine, and related sciences and on temples and irriga- 
tion in the lowland areas that were most favoured for Brahman 
settlement indicate that a Brahman intelligentsia was busily working 
in many fields other than ritual and Vedic studies. Even esoteric 
learning could be useful in constructing an agrarian order. Shankar- 
acharya’s philosophy, for instance, concerns the disputation of sacred 
authority. Intellectual innovations in doctrine and ritual enabled local 
cults to be woven together into expanding Puranic traditions. Great 
temples multiplied with royal patronage. So did their poetic publicity. 
The greatness of the gods enhanced the glamour of royal patrons. 
Rich centres of temple worship combined in their precincts many of 
the technical skills — controlled by Brahmans — that were needed to 
develop agrarian territories, from architecture and engineering to law 
and financial management. Building a great temple or monastery 
attracted Brahmans and monks and provided a theatre of royal 
grandeur; here a king could make alliances and enjoy dramatic 


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displays of submission. Great kings built great temples and com- 
manded the services of the most learned Brahmans. 

A donation to Brahmans, monasteries, monks, or temples repre- 
sented an investment in agrarian territoriality. Inscriptions, typically 
carved on a temple wall, served as contracts and advertisements. The 
more popular a place of worship became — the more praised in song, 
and the more attractive for pilgrims — the greater became the value of 
its patronage. The rise of bhakti (devotional) movements enhanced the 
virtue of pilgrimage, increased the number of worshippers, and raised 
the value of temple donations. Making donations became increasingly 
popular among aspiring groups as a means of social mobility, as 
temples became commercial centres, landowners, employers, and 
investors. The rising value of temple assets increased the value of 
membership in communities of worship. Increasing participation in 
temple rituals made them more effective sites for social ranking: 
temple honours were distributed according to rank, and all worship- 
pers were positioned in ranked proximity to the deity. Rulers came 
first. Popular bhakti devotional movements generated more popular 
religious participation, more ritual power for dominant local groups, 
and more glory for kings (even when temples were not centres for 
royal cults, which they sometimes were). Devotionalism produced a 
populist ideology for alliances among dominant agricultural lineages 
and warrior-kings, and formed communities of sentiment among 
disparate groups involved in agricultural expansion. 

Temples were divine sites for enacting social rank among devotees 
who protected dharma and sustained ritual; and, like kingship, rituals 
changed as people brought gods into changing agrarian contexts. A 
wide diversity of rituals brought rain, secured crops, drove away 
disease, delivered healthy babies,, and bolstered dynasties; but among 
all the rituals — by all kinds of spiritualists and officiates, from all 
kinds of social backgrounds, in all manner of locations — those by 
Brahman priests for Shiva, Vishnu, and their relatives produced most 
surviving documentation, because of their lasting, widespread influ- 
ence. Impressive temples came to mark agricultural territory, tow- 
ering over the land as sacred landmarks. For many centuries, 
Brahmanic rituals had evolved as a potent force in social ranking and 
alliance-building, and specifically for ranking dominant groups in 
relation to royalty; and it appears that, with the expansion of temple 
worship and popular devotionalism, the principles and practices of 


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ritual inclusion and participation provided a template and metho- 
dology for the construction of social power in agrarian territories 
where the most powerful people traced their sacred genealogies to 
the gods of the Vedas. 

Ritual powers which had been confined to Vedic ritual space were 
generalised within farming households, communities, and kingdoms. 
Brahman communities spread and Brahman models of social order 
spread with the influence of temples and temple patrons. In commu- 
nities of temple worship, the roles and terms of Vedic ritual assumed 
new, mundane meanings. It seems, for instance, that the Vedic jajman 
was transformed into a person who controls the resources needed for 
temple ritual, which came to include not only food and animals but 
also the services of workers. Hence a jajman would be the pivot of 
power in circuits of redistribution and in what would be called ‘the 
jajmani system’, in which village land-owning elite families receive 
labour and assets from subordinates throughout the agricultural year 
and distribute produce from their land to workers at harvest time. 
Inscriptions also support the inference that agrarian territory became 
bounded by dharma as ritually ranked circles of marriage and kinship 
evolved into ranked caste groups (jatis). Coercion was certainly 
involved in the creation of these caste societies, but the practice of 
ranking jati groups according to the principles of varna would also 
have been attractive for many groups. The adoption and enforcement 
of caste norms consolidated and expanded caste social space as it 
organised agriculture and sustained agrarian states. 

Religious rituals of social ranking enabled families to form political 
alliances by providing measures of their respective status within 
agrarian territory. The labour, land, and assets of low-ranking jatis 
were organised for production by being subordinated to the power of 
dominant caste families, who carved out territories in strategic transac- 
tions with Brahmans, gods, and kings. Dominant caste alliances thus 
formed medieval agrarian territories at the intersection of kingship and 
local communities. The expansion of caste society appears to have 
been a top-down process, which included but did not necessarily 
depend upon everyday coercion. It might be best characterised as an 
evolving caste hegemony, in which the coercive features of social 
power were hidden by an ideology of dharma that became widely 
accepted as it provided everyone with a place in the ranks of agrarian 
entitlement. Inscriptions further support the proposition that jati 


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ranking was propelled by strategies of alliance among rising powers in 
agrarian society. New dynastic realms and agrarian territories were 
places for social mobility where the building of ranking systems made 
good sense. Dynastic lineage leaders and Brahmans were critical actors 
in creating these systems of social difference, status, rank, and power, 
which enabled powerful non-Brahman families to become gentry. 

Temples and Brahman settlements were sites of honour around 
which to form ranks of privilege. Like kings, Brahmans acquired 
their social rank historically. Building dynastic territory was a 
complicated process that involved innovation, risk, improvisation, 
and experiment; and the wide open spaces of medieval times enabled 
people to become Brahmans as well as Rajputs, Kshatriyas, Marathas, 
and Sat-sudra gentry. To become Brahman meant to be accepted as 
Brahman, patronised as Brahman, respected as Brahman; thus one 
came to command the skills, social status, and kinship of Brahmans, 
according to scriptures that allow people to become Brahmans 
through their deeds. Controls over access to Brahman status were 
strict, so that entering Brahman ranks would have been difficult. But 
the widespread establishment of new Brahman settlements — duly 
recorded in the inscriptions — provided many opportunities for new 
Brahman lineages and clans to be formed. Founders and protectors of 
Brahman settlements, builders of temples, and donors who financed 
temple rituals were the moving force behind the Brahmanisation of 
agrarian territories. Land grants to temples and Brahmans are there- 
fore less an indication of traditional Brahman power or peasant 
subordination than a reflection of alliance-building by aspiring 
agrarian elites who used ritual ranking to lift themselves over 
competitors and institutionalised their status by patronising gods and 
Brahmans. 

Giving land increased the status of a donor and allied ‘protectors’ of 
the grant, who are also often named in inscriptions; by extension, 
these donations elevated all their kin. As kinship circles formed 
around the lineages that fed gods and Brahmans, whole sets of kin 
groups, forming as high-status, non-Brahman jatis, elevated them- 
selves above others in temple ritual and agrarian society. This may 
explain why leaders of janapadas in Harsha’s realm protected a gift of 
land to Brahmans, and why one of his generals made the gift under 
Harsha’s authority. In the open spaces of Rashtrakuta power, one 
inscription records a gift of 8,000 measures of land to 1,000 Brahmans, 


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and 4,000 measures to a single Brahman. Similar generosity is evident 
in many places in the medieval period. In each specific context, a 
donative inscription appears to mark an effort by a non-Brahman 
power block to enhance its own status and that of its local allies. Such 
gambits were not without risk and opposition. Raising the status of 
some groups lowered others, and Brahman settlements created ranked 
entitlements in everyday social transactions. Brahmans did not usually 
farm land themselves and they were entitled by grants to receive the 
produce of farms, including taxes; so they became a significant social 
force, protected by royal power, and also a landed elite whose well- 
being depended upon the control of other people’s land and labour. 
Brahman lords of land became a model for other elites. Brahmanisa- 
tion sustained the rise of landed elites and aspiring royalty, whose 
superior claims to land and labour were legitimated by their patronage 
and protection of Brahmans. 

A small but significant set of inscriptions records opposition to 
Brahman settlements, to their collection of taxes, and to their claims 
on local resources such as pastures, often contained in grants. Most 
Opposition seems to come from leading members of local farming 
communities. The authority of kings who patronised Brahmans was 
clearly not accepted by everyone in medieval societies; and the 
authority of Brahmanical kingship spread slowly — often violently — 
into the vast spaces that lay outside its reach in early-medieval 
centuries. In many instances, land grants appear to mark frontiers of 
royal power, and here the most resistance might be expected. Even 
where local society did accept the ritual and social status of Brahmans, 
fierce competitive struggles might flare up over land grants. Some 
opposition to Brahman settlements certainly came from local competi- 
tors who were fighting against the families who sought to elevate 
themselves by patronising Brahmans with land grants. In the ninth 
century, local conflicts of this kind accompanied new Brahman settle- 
ments on the Tamil coast, where they were an old and widely accepted 
feature of agrarian territoriality. The open spaces of Rashtrakuta 
ambition were another matter. Inscriptions from the northern penin- 
sula warn that violence and curses will be heaped upon opponents of 
Brahman land grants, and texts proclaim that people who murder 
Brahmans will be punished harshly, which implies that such murders 
did in fact occur. But striving lineages also had options other than 
revolt, for, as Bhisma says in the Mahabharata, ‘Tf the king disregards 


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agriculturists, they become lost to him, and abandoning his domin- 
ions, [they] betake themselves to the woods.’” 

Territories of permanent cultivation, irrigation, worship, pilgrimage, 
dynastic authority, temple wealth, jati ranking, caste dominance, and 
Brahman influence grew together. Inscriptions depict idioms of terri- 
toriality as they pinpoint the location of a royal donor, the ranks of 
officials involved in a grant, the status of local protectors, and the 
names of religious personnel and institutions. Power relations in 
agricultural expansion were thus more complex than we can see using 
a simple division of the agrarian world between the state and society. 
There was more at work in the medieval political economy than 
interaction between kings and peasants or dynasties and villages. The 
most important social forces within medieval states worked the middle 
ground between rulers and farmers, where leaders of locally promi- 
nent families made strategic alliances that constituted dynastic terri- 
tory. An agrarian gentry thus emerged as a constituent of royal 
authority. The constant rhetorical and ritual elevation of the king 
above all others mirrored and mobilised social ranking; it served the 
cause of gentry mobility. The superiority of rulers served all subordi- 
nates by elevating them above lower orders in their relative proximity 
to the king. When an aspiring warrior family elevated itself by 
declaring a new dynasty, it benefited the whole clan and their home 
locality. Inviting Brahmans to live in its territory, generating for itself 
a cosmic lineage, building temples, and adopting royal titles and 
rituals, the new king would pursue allies. In this pursuit, recognition 
by an established, superior king could be a boon. Kings would thus 
extend their domains by forming unequal alliances with samantas, 
whose subordination would raise their local status. Subordinate rulers 
could then support or protect a grant in the great king’s name, to 
enhance their status further. A rising dynasty would then accumulate 
its own subordinate samantas on the periphery of its core territory, 
while subordinate rulers on the frontier would improve their position 
at the same time. Core regions of agrarian expansion would expand as 
emerging leaders allied with regional dynasties, and leaders on the 
frontiers of several royal territories shifted loyalties or combined 
them. A successful samanta might seek to overturn his master, so the 


7 Harbans Mukhia, ‘Was There Feudalism in Indian History?’ in Herman Kulke, ed., The 
State in India, 1000-1700, Delhi, 1995, p. 128. 


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advice of King Lalitadiya of Kashmir (in the eighth century) makes 
good sense: ‘Do not allow the villagers to accumulate more than they 
need for bare subsistence, lest they revolt.’ 

The early-medieval period — from the sixth to thirteenth century — 
laid the foundations for later agrarian history in many ways. New 
forms of social life emerged in many places at the same time. What M. 
N. Srinivas called ‘Sanskritisation’ evokes part of the process, because 
social groups and institutions were being formed around models of 
behaviour, identity, aesthetics, and patronage codified in Sanskrit 
texts. Brahmans were key people because they sanctified social rank 
and political alliance. Rising families wanted to hire Brahman genealo- 
gists and court poets, patronise Brahman and temples, endow feeding 
places for mendicants and pilgrimages, stage festivals, feed saints, and 
join the activities that united gods, priests, kings, and farmers. All this 
occurred as farmland was expanding and as peasant farmers, nomads, 
pastoralists, hunters, and forest tribes were slowly changing the 
substance of their social identity, over many generations, as people 
became high-caste landowners, kings, protectors of dharma, Ksha- 
triyas, Vaisyas, superior Sudras, inferior Sudras, Untouchables, and 
aliens beyond the pale. Such transformations obscure the ancient 
identity of the people who propelled medieval agrarian history, but 
the result was that gentry castes filled the ranks of landowners and 
ruling lineages. Many of these groups remain powerful in their regions 
in modern times. They became Kunbi, Vellala, Velama, Reddy, Kapu, 
Kamma, Nayar, and other landed castes. The ancient social back- 
ground of some dynasties can also be dimly perceived. Hoysalas came 
from Melapas, hill chiefs in the Soseyur forests. Udatyar and Yadava 
dynasties descended from herders. Tevar kings descended from 
Marava and Kallar hunters. Marathas had ancestors in the hills. 
Gurjaras certainly had a pastoral past. Rajputs did not have one 
original identity but emerged from histories of warrior ranking and 
mythology, and many had ancient pastoral and tribal roots. All these 
transformations are entangled in the politics of religious leadership, 
devotion, and loyalty; and every state in the history of South Asia has 
afforded special privileges — including tax exemptions — to religious 
institutions and religious leaders. Many social movements that 
moderns might call ‘religious’ might be better understood as forma- 
tions of agrarian territorialism, as we will see in chapter 4. 

Geographically, early-medieval territories seem to have concen- 


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trated in the riverine lowlands. Here the influence of Brahmans and 
medieval Sanskritisation was most compelling. In scattered rice- 
growing and irrigated lowlands, aspiring elite families patronised 
Brahmans and Puranic deities as they fought to control prime farm- 
land and to create their own sacred rights of first possession. Mapping 
agrarian territories which are documented by inscriptions is not easy 
because transactions recorded epigraphically occurred within a 
moving constellation of dynastic donations that has not been mapped 
comprehensively. This medieval territoriality was defined not by fixed 
boundaries but rather by its individual transactions, and such transac- 
tional territory can remain firmly in place only as long as the 
transactional system that defines it. But the agrarian elites that came 
into being within medieval polities — through their participation in this 
transactional system — remained in power in many locations of 
intensive medieval agriculture for centuries to come. In the nineteenth 
century, for instance, a local official reported from the old Gupta core 
region in Saran District, Bihar, that ‘Brahmans, Rajputs, and Bhumi- 
hars were the only castes that figured in the “actual life” of the 
district’.8 In early-medieval times, such groups were coming into 
existence, their social identities were being produced transactionally, 
and the inscriptions perpetuate their reputation. 

Medieval kingdoms were composed of networks of transactions 
rather than bureaucratic institutions of a kind that would define later 
agrarian territories of revenue and judicial administration. In the 
1950s, K. A. Nilakanta Shastri argued that the Cholas had built an 
‘almost Byzantine royalty’, and since the 1960s, R. S. Sharma has 
argued that post-Gupta states in general represent a form of feud- 
alism. Historians have developed alternatives to these models, but 
they have not replaced them, and today there is no consensus 
concerning the nature of medieval states. But inside dynastic 
domains, inscriptions indicate that agrarian territories were small, 
consisting of settlements linked together by locally dominant caste 
power. Inscriptional terms mark transactional space by using titles 
for individuals and groups and by using place names attached to the 
people in transactions — terms such as nadu or padi. The nadu in 
modern “Tamil Nadw’ is a territorial marker from medieval inscrip- 


8 Anand Yang, The Limited Raj: Agrarian Relations in Colonial India, Saran District, 
1793-1920, Berkeley, 1989, p. 44. 


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tions which designated a tiny region that was defined by its ritual, 
land, water, kinship, and royal transactions. The term appears most 
often in references to leaders of the nadu who engaged in donative 
transactions with temples and Brahmans. In later centuries, it 
acquired more expansive meanings; but medieval nadus along the 
Tamil coast were composed of core settlements along routes of 
drainage, where Brahmans and temples received land grants, and they 
were connected to one another by donative transactions and sur- 
rounded by vast tracts of land which was not controlled by dominant 
groups in core nadu sites. 

Where inscriptional sites of agrarian power have been mapped, they 
cluster along rivers, so it appears that the nexus of power that they 
reflect concentrated on the control of riverine farmland. Over time, 
Brahman influence spread widely, and Brahmans and allied gentry and 
service castes became mobile state elites. Locally, gentry caste power 
dug in and expanded steadily. Based in prime locations along rivers 
and trade routes with clusters of temple towns and old dynastic 
capitals, caste communities incorporated tribal, hunting, pastoral, and 
nomadic groups into the lower echelons of society, where the new 
entrants retained much of their character, redefined in caste terms. 
Tribal deities entered the Puranic pantheon, adding cultural com- 
plexity and expressing the richness of agrarian territories. The social 
and cultural character of agrarian regions emerged in later centuries, 
but medieval territoriality left its traces and imparted distinctive 
qualities to localities by giving special importance to Brahmans, 
temples, and high-caste gentry. Where we do not find medieval 
donative inscriptions — as in Punjab, in Jat territories in the western 
Ganga plains, and in the mountains — the population and cultural 
importance of Brahmans remains comparatively small in agrarian 
societies today. Inscriptional territories concentrate in eastern and 
central Uttar Pradesh, West Bengal, Gujarat, western Maharashtra, 
and along the coastal plains. Brahmanism seems less deeply rooted in 
other areas, where other types of social power were more prominent 
in the later formation of agrarian territories. 


CONQUEST 


One Candella inscription announces that Anand, brother of Trailo- 
kyavarman, reduced to submission ‘wild tribes of Bhillas, Sabaras and 


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Pulindas’.? Conquering tribes and expelling them from the land is a 
major theme in genealogy and epigraphy. Warrior lineages expanded 
in number and influence after the Guptas, creating and conquering 
agricultural territories, and preserving their victories in inscriptions, 
epic poetry, folklore, and hagiography. From the eighth to the 
eleventh century, Gurjara-Pratiharas conquered along western plains 
and northern basins, moving into the central mountains and high 
mountain valleys. Along the coast of the southern peninsula, Pandya, 
Chera, and Chola lineages repeatedly conquered each others’ territory. 
Many warriors planted settlements of warrior-farmers along routes of 
conquest. From the eighth to tenth century, Rashtrakutas migrated 
and conquered territories all across the north Deccan, Gujarat, and 
Orissa. The Vakatakas emulated earlier Satavahanas and expanded 
outward from Vidarbha (Berar); they split into four branches, with 
shifting capitals spread from Chhattisgarh across the Deccan to the 
upper reaches of the Bhima river basin. In the sixth century, Kalacuris 
appeared in the north Deccan territories of the Vakatakas; in the 
eighth, inscriptions show them in Tripura, near the head of the 
Narmada river; and as late as the thirteenth century they appear in 
Bengal. Chola armies conquered northern Sri Lanka, leaving a popula- 
tion of colonists behind. Calukya lineages had bases in Vatapi along 
the upper Tungabhadra river in the seventh and eighth century, and in 
Kalyani, well to the north, in the eleventh and twelfth. From the 
fourteenth to the sixteenth century, Vijayanagar dynasties expanded 
from the vicinity of old Vatapi across the southern Deccan and eastern 
plains; and they shifted their capitals into coastal lowlands as they 
broke up into smaller dynasties in the sixteenth and seventeenth 
centuries. Under Vijayanagar, Telugu warrior clans conquered terri- 
tory all along the south-eastern coastal plain. 

This is only the start of a list of medieval conquests that barely 
begins to indicate how widely they influenced agrarian territoriality. 
Conquest colonisation exerted its influence quite separately from 
territorial dharma, but together they produced agrarian territories that 
expanded to become agrarian regions. Conquering colonists knitted 
together many small-scale domains of localised, dominant caste 
power; they connected new frontiers and old dynastic sites. Activities 


° Brajadulal Chattopadhyay, ‘Political Processes and the Structure of Polity in Early 
Medieval India’, in Kulke, The State, p. 219. 


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depicted in Harsha’s seventh-century inscription are typical of many 
events in this process. Many donative inscriptions reflect similar 
activity by subordinate officers and local leaders, for whom gifts to 
Brahmans and temples represent incorporation into conquest terri- 
tories. Conquest created ranks of warriors above the locally dominant 
castes; and superior entitlements created by conquest moved agricul- 
tural wealth along trade routes of warrior power in the form of tribute 
and temple endowment. Warriors used agrarian wealth from one 
location to support conquest in others; and traders, pastoralists, and 
warrior-farmers moved agrarian wealth among sites. These transfers of 
wealth employed monetary instruments and commercial intermedia- 
tion, which are most visible in the inscriptional evidence as they 
pertain to temple endowments. Conquest and trade went hand-in- 
hand with religious endowments and investments in farming. 

Warriors created territories of authority in which their officers 
could establish local roots within communities, where they distributed 
local entitlements to kin, allies, and subordinates. Distant localities 
were connected to one another by the social networks that formed 
along routes of conquest and extended the reach of conquering clans. 
Local caste elites were assimilated into extensive realms of clan power 
as subordinates, dependants, and rising stars. Some warrior clans 
created a non-farming nobility living high in fortress towns, looking 
down on farm communities; these became landmarks on agricultural 
landscapes, as prominent as temples and other sacred places. Warrior 
competition among siblings in each successive generation would send 
another wave of fighters out to conquer new territory; in this 
enterprise, these clans faced one another on the battlefield, so that 
battles among warriors became a dominant motif in hagiographies, 
genealogies, and local lore about the land. The exploits of great men 
became material for epics, rumours, gossip, and popular songs, land- 
marks in local history. 

Two broad geographical zones of warrior influence can be roughly 
discerned. One was formed by clans that became Rajputs — Gurjaras, 
Cahamanas (Chauhans), Paramaras (Pawars), Guhilas (Sisodias), and 
Caulukyas (Solankis) - who conquered from the eighth century 
onward across the western plains, northern basins, adjacent high 
mountain valleys, and central mountains. Local leaders rose up to ally 
with and to join the ranks of conquering clans, by imitation, alliance, 
genealogical invention, inter-marriage, and combinations of these 


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strategies. Rajput rulers protected dharma and became ideal Ksha- 
triyas. Brahman settlements and temple rituals were not as important 
for Rajput royalty as warfare, genealogies, hagiographies, and court 
ceremonies. Their lineages measured their status in victories, alliances, 
marriages, and accumulations of tribute in their palaces, forts, and 
market towns — including Brahmans and temples. Nobles endowed 
temples and employed Brahmans as ritualists and servants, but it was 
more their devotion to battle, to their own clan, and to the rules of 
martial kingship that measured their devotion to dharma. In warrior 
territory, the ritual ranking of agrarian society followed the logic of 
warrior lineages, stressing military alliance, victory, service, and pub- 
licly demonstrated powers of physical command and subjugation. 
Agrarian social power concentrated much less in a local landed gentry 
and much more in warrior lineages. Genealogies became records of 
rank and they proliferated across the entire span of the medieval epoch 
to mark the expanding area of Rajput influence. Surajit Sinha has 
shown that ‘state formation in the tribal belt of Central India is very 
largely a story of the Rajputisation of the tribes’.’° The interaction of 
expansive Rajput lineages with locally powerful Jat clans produced a 
militarist pattern of agrarian development in the western frontiers of 
old Bharat, where agrarian power focused on fortified villages and 
strategic hill towns. 

A second warrior zone lay south of the Vindhyas in Khandesh, 
Berar, Maharashtra, central mountain valleys, and the interior penin- 
sula, where warriors were attached to agricultural communities and 
concentrated power in their own hands but followed no single 
dominant model such as that of the Rajputs. Instead — from the time of 
the Satavahanas, Vakatakas, and Rashtrakutas, to that of the Yadavas, 
Calukyas, Hoysalas, Kakatiyas of Warangal, Sultans of Ahmadnagar 
and Bijapur, Udaiyars and Sultans of Mysore, and the Marathas — 
dominant social powers in agriculture arose from and mingled with 
the evolution of peoples living in and drawn from pastoral, hunting, 
and mountain populations. Standing to fight became part of farming. 
Running off to war became part of the agricultural routine. In the 


10 Surajit Sinha, ‘State Formation and Rajput Myth in Tribal Central India’, Presidential 
Address, Section on Anthropology and Archaeology, Forty-ninth Indian Science Congress, 
1962, reprinted in Kulke, ed., The State, p. 305. See also Surajit Sinha, ‘Bhumij-Kshatriya 
Social Movements in South Manbhum’, Bulletin of the Department of Anthropology 
(University of Calcutta), 8, 2, 1959, 9-32. 


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interior peninsula, extensive tracts of dry land were open for cultiva- 
tion for the people who could fight to keep it; and throughout 
medieval centuries, cattle, manpower, centres of trade, strategic posi- 
tions, and places with good water and access to valuable forests were 
more valuable assets for aspiring warrior lineages than most farmland, 
except in the stretches of deep black soil along the big rivers that were 
perpetual sites of warrior-peasant competition. The dominant agrarian 
castes were both warriors and cultivators. In the Maratha Deccan, for 
instance, expanses of open land that were available in the sixteenth and 
seventeenth century allowed many warrior-farming lineages to carve 
out local territory for themselves. A lineage leader would become a 
patel (village headman); and then, by combining his military power 
with strategic alliances, he could become a deshmukh (headman) for a 
circle of villages, a serious player in regional politics. In the context of 
constant local military competition and shifting alliances, there was 
little scope for the rise of an agrarian gentry until warrior-farmers 
could control an area long enough to institutionalize their elite status, 
which eventually did occur later in the medieval period in Maratha 
core areas, as well as among Vokkaligas and Boyas in Karnataka, and 
among Reddy and other locally dominant Telugu castes in Telangana. 
In the eleventh century, warriors came on horseback from Afghani- 
stan and Central Asia to engage warriors in the lowlands and they 
swept across the subcontinent to connect the zones of warrior 
colonisation north and south of the Vindhyas, which had been until 
then quite separate. They pushed into historical spaces of conquest 
colonisation that were many centuries old. The military competition 
that ensued increased the influence of conquest colonisation on 
agriculture as a whole by increasing the number and force of warriors. 
Because temples, cities, and irrigation represented authority and 
prosperity, they were natural targets in war.'! Warriors often dislo- 
cated farming communities when they attacked their enemies. The 
great eleventh-century irrigation builder, the Paramara Raja Bhoj, had 
built a wall to form a huge irrigation reservoir at Bhojpur, near 
Bhopal, and armies of the Sultan of Mandi, Hoshang Shah, later cut 
the dam to destroy the lake, killing the irrigation. This kind of warfare 
discouraged heavy investments by farmers in fixed agricultural assets 


"1 Richard H. Davis, ‘Indian Art Objects as Loot’, Journal of Asian Studies, 52, 1, 1993, 


22-48, and “Three Styles in Looting India’, History and Anthropology, 6, 4, 1994, 293-317- 


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such as irrigation works, unless they could be protected by local arms, 
as wells could be, which helps to explain their popularity in all the 
regions of conquest colonisation. A militarisation of farming occurred 
in all the dry regions where wells are most important. By the fifteenth 
century, professional armies had established their military superiority 
over the local hordes of warrior-peasants, but no state could destroy 
the independent warrior lineages which had fought successfully to 
control local territories. In wide fields of warrior-farming, lineages 
expanded their cultivation and coercive power at the same time under 
medieval dynasties. Warrior Jats colonised Punjab and the western 
Ganga basin and formed agrarian mini-polities which became regional 
states in the eighteenth century. Stable centres of professional military 
power emerged in many territories in the interior peninsula, some, as 
on the Mysore plateau, with old formations of caste dominance 
endowed with all the institutional traditions of royalty and Brahman 
patronage. 

Conquest colonisation made much of agrarian space a constant 
battleground, and the careers of the Vijayanagar and Maratha empires 
reflect important features of this aspect of agarian history. In a region 
of Telugu conquest, Vijayanagar, ‘the city of victory’, was built in the 
fourteenth century in old agricultural territory near the old Calukya 
centre of Vatapi, along the upper Tungabhadra river. Endowed with 
magnificent irrigation, the city accumulated so much warrior wealth 
that Portuguese visitors took it to be richer than Paris, with its great 
temples, royal cult, and vassals arriving at festival time with mountains 
of tribute. Fighters led by nayakas (commanders) spread Vijayanagar’s 
dominion outward in waves of conquest colonisation, creating the first 
empire to embrace all the land south of the Krishna. Telugu warrior- 
peasants opened up new land for dry farming along the eastern coast — 
in dry stretches filled with deep black cotton soil between old riverine 
clusters — and these colonies would sustain a vast expansion of cloth 
manufacture for world markets in the seventeenth and eighteenth 
century, when Nayakas became kings. Vijayanagar itself was de- 
stroyed, however, by sultans at Bijapur, another old site in the former 
Calukya realm. The city of victory had disappeared completely by the 
end of the seventeenth century. 

In 1640, Shivaji was married in Bangalore at the court of the Bijapur 
sultan, whom his father, Shahji, served as a general. Shahji’s jagir 
(assigned revenue territory) near Pune became Shivaji’s patrimony and 


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a base for his later military expansion. In his day, good rainy seasons 
and peaceful times saw farmers expanding cultivation, though even in 
good years they would go off to war during dry months. Building in 
one place accompanied destruction elsewhere. Droughts would rou- 
tinely drive more farmers out to fight, loot, and colonise. The great 
fortresses that became great cities — like Vijayanagar — could disappear 
without a trace, because their ruling lineages and urban populations 
would move overnight to other sites. New cities and towns rose on 
ruins everyday in the world of warrior-peasants and military entrepre- 
neurs. One story goes that in the seventeenth century, on the fringes 
of Maratha power, in the southern Deccan, 


Doda Mastee and Chikka Mastee, two brothers with their families and cattle, 
came from the north and built two houses. They cleared the jungle around and 
maintained themselves by cultivating the soil. They invited inhabitants from other 
parts, advancing them money to increase the cultivation. The brothers next built a 
fort and gave their village the name Halla Goudennahally . . . In time the brothers 
quarrelled because the younger brother Chikka Mastee made a tank which 
endangered the village. Doda Mastee being displeased with his brother’s folly 
removed and built north of the first village another village called Goudennahally 
and all the inhabitants moved to the new village . . . Halla Goudennahally was in 
the meantime inundated by the water of the tank. 


Building and breaking, moving and settling — these are old themes, 
but the story elides a suspicion that Doda Mastee broke the tank of his 
younger brother to force the villagers into his new settlement. 
Building a new settlement often entailed violence, much like planting 
new fields meant cutting down the jungle. In 1630, when villages in his 
revenue territory (jagir) lay waste from famine, Shivaji’s guardian, 
Dadaji Kondey, ‘set about repopulating and developing the jagir’, for 
which purpose ‘Deshpandes were seized and taken in hand, [and] the 
refractory among them were put to death’. 

From the eighth century onward, conquest colonisation is well 
enough documented to allow us to distinguish different types, which 
can be identified by their association with specific groups. (1) Some 
professional warrior lineages emerged from ancient roots at the 
margins of old agricultural societies, from pastoral and hunter peoples 
for whom extensive mobility and killing were ancient skills. These 
warrior specialists conquered agricultural communities and formed a 
nobility. For simplicity, we can call this the Rajput pattern, with its 


12 Stewart Gordon, The Marathas 1600-1818, Cambridge, 1994, p. 60. 


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various spin-offs and variants that arose with emulation and alliance- 
building among other warrior groups. (2) Some warrior lineages came 
from the ranks of dominant caste farmers who had formed a military 
force and allied with professional warriors, often serving under them. 
Conquering widely, these fighting peasants would retain their local 
agrarian base. If successful, they could spread their power by alliance 
and conquest across territories dominated by allies in similar warrior- 
peasant castes. This is the outline of the Maratha pattern, which had a 
long history in the Deccan before the rise of Shivaji. (3) A warrior 
lineage could split off from a dynastic authority, using symbols and 
alliances derived from that dynasty to lead fighting colonists into new 
territories, to conquer, displace, and/or assimilate local tribes and 
others, and thus to form new agricultural communities and new 
agrarian territories. This pattern, exemplified by the Mastee brothers, 
also typified Telugu colonists in the black soil tracts of the Tamil 
country. (4) Warrior-farmers could simply conquer and settle new 
territory, dividing the land among the lineages. The conquering group 
itself would form the bulk of the agrarian population in this territory. 
Kings would rise within it and clans would differentiate over time into 
many ranks. Groups would splinter off for new colonisation. This 
pattern — typified by the Jats - may be the most common of all and 
probably dominated the hills and valleys of the central mountains, for 
instance in Gondwana, Chhattisgarh, and other areas of tribal Rajpu- 
tisation. It also typifies lowland warrior-farming groups such as the 
Maravas and Kallars, in southern Tamil country, including the Pir- 
amalai Kallar studied by Louis Dumont. 

Late-medieval warrior lineages — from the Ghorids to the Mughals 
— followed the Rajput model, which was also prevalent in various 
forms in Central and West Asia. As they subsumed other warriors 
under their authority, they increased the power of subordinates such 
as Shivaji who could form local alliances with warrior-peasant lineages. 
Sultans had less interest even than Rajputs in farming themselves, 
living among farmers, or tinkering with production locally. They 
conquered warriors who already ruled over agrarian territories. They 
lived in fortress towns and their movements connected all the old fort- 
centres of warrior colonisation not only to one another but also to 
urban centres across inland corridors of southern Asia from Dhaka to 
Istanbul. Like their predecessors, the sultans brought retinues from 
their homelands and new technologies of power, and they encouraged 


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migrants from their home territories to settle in their new dominions, 
primarily in the established urban centres but also on agricultural 
frontiers, where, like the Brahman settlements of the early-medieval 
period, ulema (learned men) and Sufis provided erudition and leader- 
ship for agricultural expansion in the Indus Valley, Punjab, the 
western Gangetic plain, the Deccan, and eastern Bengal. Again, new 
skills and productive powers came into agrarian territories with new 
ruling elites. This was like the dispersion of productive powers that 
followed the end of the Gupta empire, but on a much greater scale, 
with more dramatic consequences, and with more detailed documenta- 
tion. With warrior-sultans from the western reaches of southern Asia 
came architects, accountants, scholars, genealogists, bureaucrats, poets, 
scientists, merchants, bankers, musicians, and the entire cultural 
heritage of Persia. The centre of gravity in Persian cultural history 
moved into South Asia, where a Persian lexicon and technologies of 
power organised a widespread reintegration of agrarian territories. 
New strata of non-farming elites were formed by sultans who granted 
their subordinates entitlements to revenue from the land. Again, royal 
patronage fed the rise of new agrarian elites. 

Sultanic regimes continued and reinforced long historical trends in 
conquest colonisation. Muslim rulers did not dramatise political 
alliances in temple ritual, but they sustained temple authority in 
agrarian territory. Old land grants to temples remained in place. New 
royal donations were added in the form of the tax remissions. 
Victorious sultans defeated old defenders of dharma, and this again 
brought Kali Yuga to mind for some Brahmans; some fled into 
mountain valleys and into rapidly expanding agrarian territories 
around Kathmandu. Sultans brought superior military technology 
into the field, which altered the competitive environment of conquest 
colonisation. Defeated warriors launched new waves of conquest, 
extending warrior power from the Deccan and the Ganga basin into 
deltaic and coastal regions. But imperial expansion still depended 
upon unequal alliances with subordinate rulers, who increased their 
own status by hitching their fortune to victorious sultans. Sultanic 
regimes developed institutions of military bureaucracy that focused 
authority on the emperor’s family, relatives, and his highest ranking 
allies, who formed the imperial nobility; and, from the time of 
Akbar’s marriage alliance with Rajputs, the imperial wedding became 
a ritual of the highest statecraft. Rajput, Maratha, and other protec- 


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tors of dharma formed a new nobility under the umbrella of sultanic 
regimes and increased their investments in temples; so that temple 
ritual and Hindu court culture flourished under the sultans. Akbar’s 
and Dara Shuko’s experiments in religion reflect a continuing effort 
to articulate political alliance-building with philosophical speculation; 
and rituals of theological disputation at Akbar’s court remind us of 
the medieval innovations in religious thought and performance which 
accompanied the incorporation of new groups into agrarian regimes. 
Outside the court, eclectic mysticism and devotionalism expanded 
their reach. Brahmans were in high demand in the apparatus of 
imperial taxation and law, and their occupational horizons expanded. 
More than ever, building accompanied destruction under the sultans, 
in the expansion of urbanism and in the expansion of agriculture. 
When Akbar’s troops marched into Bengal, they brought in train 
tools and men to clear the jungles to expand cultivation. Sufis came 
into the eastern delta to open the jungles to farming. To protect 
strategic mountain routes of trade, Mughal armies conquered and 
settled many sites of agrarian expansion, including Kashmir. Aur- 
angzeb began his famous 1665 farman (edict) on administration with 
words that echo Kasyapa and the Pandyan poet: ‘the entire elevated 
attention and desires of the Emperor are devoted to the increase in 
the population and cultivation of the Empire and the welfare of the 
whole peasantry and the entire people.’ Aurangzeb reiterated the 
Manusmriti on the sacred right of first possession when he declared 
that, ‘whoever turns (wasteland) into cultivable land should be 
recognised as the (owner) malik and should not be deprived (of 


land)’.1? 


PATRIARCHY 


Families passed the right of first possession from one generation to the 
next. At the base of medieval states and at the apex of early-modern 
empires, family formed a core of social power and experience. In 
agrarian territory, kinship formed basic entitlements to means of 
production. Kin groups joined together to clear land, build fields, dig 
wells, and cultivate. Settlements and communities formed around 
collections of kin. Marriage networks connected villages. Families 


13, Mukhia, ‘Was There Feudalism?’, pp. 127, 201. 


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pushed the frontiers of farming and fought for control of agrarian 
space within realms of ritual and conquest. Kinship underlay class and 
caste; and, in state institutions, market networks, and community 
organisation, kin formed the most powerful bonds of alliance, alle- 
giance, loyalty, and solidarity. The Ramayana and Mahabharata are 
fundamentally family dramas and the Manusmriti is obsessed with the 
implications of marriage for caste ranking. During medieval centuries, 
family histories, emotions, rituals, intrigues, conflicts, and loyalties 
permeated agrarian life and territoriality, from family farm to imperial 
court. Family suffused all the institutions of entitlement. On the Tamil 
coast, for instance, the word pangu, meaning ‘share’, came to refer 
both to an individual’s share in family property and to a family’s share 
of village assets, so that pangali referred to relatives and also to share- 
holding landed gentry families in a farming community. The term 
kulam likewise referred to a household, lineage, clan, and local caste 
group (jati); and nadu meant an agrarian space (as opposed to kadu, 
forest) defined as the domain of authority of its most prominent 
family leaders (nattar). The inscriptional corpus is substantially the 
record of transactions among the heads of families who built agrarian 
territory, built dynasties, and travelled in search of new land to 
conquer and farm. 

Kin followed the lead of earlier generations to create expansive 
domains of kinship which became localities, kingdoms, and empires. 
Along riverine tracts of irrigated agriculture where medieval inscrip- 
tions were most densely distributed, families sought control over 
expanses of farmland, grazing land, forest, and water supplies. Suc- 
ceeding generations spread their power from one bit of cultivated 
ground to the next and prominent gentry families and an expanding 
set of kinfolk produced small, compact domains of dominance. 
Marriages formed dense links among dominant families in adjacent 
settlements, which became related to one another in patterns that 
resembled the patchwork of paddy fields. In such settings, the norms 
and practices of kinship strongly stressed local alliances among families 
and they formed intricately graded ranks within gentry strata of 
society. Marriage also marked divisions between local elites and 
groups who were barred from owning land, who served the gentry as 
dependent servants and farm workers. These distinctions took many 
forms within the idioms of caste society. But in general the formation 
of solid traditions of local gentry and rural elite dominance entailed 


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the reproduction of a genealogical connection to celestial and royal 
authorities who legitimated their patrimony. 

In this context, agriculture became a deeply patriarchal enterprise. 
Senior men ruled junior men and senior women lorded over their 
inferiors. Family ranking elevated all members of higher families, men 
and women, according to their lineage, clan, jati, varna, wealth, sect, 
office, or other mark of status rank. Patriarchy is a kind of power — 
never absolute, uncontested, or unaffected by other kinds of power — 
wielded by men by virtue of their rank in society, and agrarian 
patriarchy defined agricultural territory as a domain of ranks, entitle- 
ments, leading families, and family heads. In the ancient text Milinda- 
panho, Nagasena explains to King Menander that the people he calls 
‘villagers’ (gamika) are in fact the patriarchs who head the village 
families: 


Now when the lord, oh king, is thus summoning all the heads of houses 
(kutipurush), he issues his order to all the villagers but it is not they who assemble 
in obedience to the order; it is the heads of the houses. There are many who do 
not come: women and men, slave girls and slaves, hired workmen, servants, 
peasants (gamika), sick people, oxen, buffaloes, sheep and goats and dogs — but all 
those do not count.!* 


Many men and women did not come — only the ‘heads’ or the leaders 
of families came. Such scenes have been re-enacted millions of times. 
Of course, the lord, the king, and the sultan are also heads of families, 
men of superior rank among kinsfolk and subordinates. Many med- 
ieval inscriptions depict the ranks of patriarchs being formed and 
reformed among men who head families at various levels of power. 
Family rank came to entail entitlements, which became glossed as 
‘property rights’, but property in practice amounted to power over 
assets substantiated by and reflected in family rank. Property was also 
parcelled out within families to members according to rank. Agrarian 
territory came to be composed of proprietary units formed among 
families led by their senior men. From early-medieval times, inscrip- 
tions indicate that property entitlements were often individualised and 
transferred in market and political transactions; but property was also 
defined and protected by social powers in communities and territories. 
The inscriptional authority of the local protectors of grants to Brah- 


14 Quoted in Irfan Habib, ‘The Peasant in Indian History’, in Irfan Habib, Essays in 


Indian History, Towards a Marxist Perspective, New Delhi, 1995, p. 134. 


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mans and temples indicates that powers of entitlement depended upon 
recognised leadership in janapada, nadu, padi, desa, grama (village), 
ur (village), and other kinds of named territories. Dynasties were 
established as patriarchies at the apex of territorial ranking systems; 
and states were thus composed of nested, ranked sets of family 
entitlements, defined by transactions among patriarchs in systems of 
ranking which are depicted in the inscriptions. 

Patriarchy formed a dynamic, productive power which connected 
intimate family life with wide historical trends. Family is most often 
assumed to be a cultural constant within the realm of tradition. 
Scholars tend to think of kinship as a durable structure that is 
reproduced innocuously in private life. But family is an engine of 
change in politics and in struggles over resource control at every level 
of society. Marriage decisions, rituals, and alliances became politically 
important in ancient times as lineage leaders began building early state 
institutions. Elite matrimony became a political event of the first 
order. Competition among sons generated expansive political domains 
as younger sons went out in search of new territories, and, in early- 
medieval centuries, dispersions of ranked lineages created wide nets of 
alliance and competition. Medieval inscriptions record transactions 
among patriarchs, articulate ranks among them, and thus encode 
episodes in family history that formed agrarian territory and dynastic 
genealogies. Temple rituals articulate alliance, loyalty, devotion, and 
competition among units of patriarchal power and kinship. Many if 
not most groups with collective identities in South Asia use some form 
of genealogical reckoning to express family feelings and histories. 
Ancestral patriarchs and mythical progenitors populate origin stories. 
In the dense forest of north Bihar, in the eighteenth century, a Kayasth 
named Dullah Ram founded the village of Changel, and local lore 
preserves the story that he obeyed a dream and found a horde of gold 
coins near the temple to the mother goddess, which he duly dug up 
‘and his descendants lived happily ever after’; whereas the more 
prosaic truth is that Dullah Ram and his kinsfolk founded the village 
by usurping the land and subjugating the labour of the local tribal 
population that worshipped the mother goddess there.'> Landless 
Buinhya workers in south Bihar recount the victories of their heroic 


15 Arvind N. Das, ‘Changel: Three Centuries of an Indian Village’, Journal of Peasant 


Studies, 15, 1, 1987, 4-5. 


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progenitor, whose valiant exertions clearing and turning the jungle 
into farmland dignify their subservient labour today.'® Vellala gentry 
on the north Tamil coast trace their origins to a royal Chola ancestor 
who migrated north with 48,000 Vellala families, conquering 
Kurumba hunters. Genealogies from Mysore and Andhra begin with 
great patriarchs. So do family histories among Rajputs and other royal 
families across the northern basins. A group that calls itself ‘rulers of 
the hills’ (Malaiyalis) traces its descent from ancestors who migrated 
up from the Tamil lowlands with their gods in hand at the sharp end 
of enemy spears. Countless genealogies depict patriarchs as founding 
fathers who begin the chain of succession and entitlement that runs 
down over generations. Ancestral personalities become icons of group 
identity. Their exploits become collective accomplishments. “Our 
history’ for many groups became a story of family feelings forged by 
lore and worship, beginning with great patriarchs whose offspring 
populated the land. As if to replicate earth in heaven, the Puranic 
pantheon filled up with marriages and families of gods. Earthly kings 
became descendants of Vedic divinities. Cosmic and mundane geneal- 
ogies together defined social identities around powers and sentiments 
that linked families to one another in territories of divinity and 
heritage. Temples embodied the cosmic power of gods in the territory 
of patriarchs. 

Caste — jati — defined units and idioms of family alliance and 
ranking within varna ideologies, but patriarchy also transcended caste 
and escaped the rule of dharma. Warrior-kings connected disparate, 
distant territories to one another, and the rule of dharma could 
organise only parts of these expansive territories. In the sixth century, 
groups outside the ranks of caste society comprised the bulk of the 
population and, though dharma did subsequently expand its reach by 
various means, people outside caste society — whether beneath the 
lowest of the low or outside the pale altogether — remained numerous. 
Though excluded from temples and other rituals in respectable gentry 
communities, low castes and non-castes lived in agricultural territory. 
Because the power of caste society expanded downward from the top 
ranks and outward from centres of ritual and conquest, groups at the 
lowest ranks and on the margins of dominant caste control comprised 


16 Gyan Prakash, Bonded Histories: Genealogies of Labour Servitude in Colonial India, 
Cambridge, 1990. 


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a moving borderland between caste society and its surroundings. 
Outsiders in and around localities of high-caste control were critically 
important for the vitality of every agrarian locality, and many did 
enter into the rituals of dharma in various ways, but many also 
remained outsiders. Such people continued to arrive in every agrarian 
territory with new waves of migration and conquest colonisation 
throughout the first and second millennia. Idioms and practices of 
patriarchal alliance allowed for the loose inclusion of countless groups 
within transactional territories formed by systems of market exchange 
and political ranking. Lineage and clan leaders among tribal groups, 
merchant patriarchs from distant places, travelling artisan headmen, 
nomadic chiefs, and military commanders from virtually any back- 
ground could form alliances with locally dominant caste patriarchs 
based not on their caste ritual rank but rather on the mutual recogni- 
tion of their respective patriarchal powers. Heads of households and 
heads of state could negotiate as patriarchs because they could rely on 
one another to command the labour and allegiance, assets and loyalty 
of their kinfolk. This produced trust, confidence, and stability in 
transactions that relied upon payments in the future for promises in 
the present, whether loans, contracts, or agreements to pay taxes in 
return for entitlements to land. 

Patrimonial entitlements thus defined property rights and powers 
over labour independently of the rituals of caste and temple worship; 
and transactions that formed proprietary entitlements also produced 
state revenues as well as profits and capital for the market economy. 
Medieval inscriptions depict very complex market transactions, and in 
many cases temple donations also represent tribute. In payments of 
tribute, conquerors, kings, and financiers took payments from local 
patriarchs in transactions that constituted ranks of patriarchal entitle- 
ment. Routines of tribute collection became systems of taxation as 
they became routinised and acquired ideological legitimacy in agrarian 
cultures as instruments for transactional ranking and entitlement. 
Within the rituals of taxation, dharma, markets, and conquest, patri- 
monial property became securely established as a foundation for 
agrarian authority. 

As disparate groups with different backgrounds settled in agrarian 
territory and worked with one another over generations, they devel- 
oped complex etiquettes of rank, deference, and residential segrega- 
tion, expressed in housing, personal habits, marriage, clothing, 


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language, ritual, literature, and cuisine. Agrarian societies were not 
conceptualised by their participants as being composed of jatis 
working within a unified ritual order of caste ranking or dharma; so 
there is no ‘caste system’ described in the records of medieval agrarian 
communities. Creating a system of ranks to include all participants in 
any local society was actually beyond the scope of dharma. The 
adaptive and inclusive capacities of temple and caste ritual could not 
keep pace with the expansive diversity of agrarian social space. Local 
societies came to include not only Buddhists, Jains, Parsis, Muslims, 
Christians, and tribals, but also many groups who did puja but were 
excluded from temples, who observed ritual ranks among themselves 
but were excluded from the territories controlled by dominant 
agrarian castes. Vast open space and towns sprouting up here and 
there allowed many groups to establish settlements with their own 
local rules of ranking and alliance, within which they lived and from 
which they engaged in social relations of great importance to their 
livelihoods with groups elsewhere who followed different rules of 
ranking. Settlements of people who followed mutually incompatible 
systems of ranking could not relate to one another on the basis of 
either ranking system; and transactions among such groups included 
barter, exchange, employment, patronage, alliance, conquest, and 
subordination. Dharma could not define this kind of transactional 
territory, but patriarchs could always represent their own people in 
relations with others. Genealogies that begin with founding patriarchs 
produced legitimate authority for the headmen of prominent families, 
for community leaders, for village elders, and for the family heads 
who were members of village councils called panchayat or shalish. 
Thousands of little social groups occupied and partitioned agrarian 
space and acquired names and genealogical histories as they interacted 
with one another. Some became part of a caste structure in agricultural 
settlements, but many stood apart. Many hunters, tree cultivators, 
herders, fisher folk, harvesters of the forest, merchants, artisans, 
miners, diggers of tanks and wells, tribal groups, and peasants formed 
their own little ethnic communities outside territories of dominant 
caste authority. Their headman patriarchs represented these groups in 
their relations with one another and received recognition and entitle- 
ments as the natural leaders of their communities. 

The politics of patriarchy also propelled a medieval transition that 
came with the second millennium. From the eighth to the thirteenth 


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century, patrilineal warrior clans with backgrounds in pastoral no- 
madism conquered farming communities all across south, central, and 
south-west Asia. In the vast territories of the warrior clans, competi- 
tion by junior members and collateral branches propelled expansion 
and conflict. Marriage formed ranks and alliances among all the 
warrior lineages, and when warriors did marry into agrarian commu- 
nities they formed new ranks in which the sons of kings remained 
superior to the sons of the soil. In the early centuries of the second 
millennium, Ghaznavids, Ghorids, Khaljis, and Tughluqs expanded 
into lowland territories of military competition among Yadavas, 
Calukyas, Paramaras, Sisodias, and others. These specialised, warrior 
groups had much in common. They unified their own forces by 
kinship and ritual practices that formed extensive family ties. They 
made alliances by marriage. They conquered farming groups to rule 
and protect them. They lived in fortress towns and formed an elite 
stratum ranked above the kin networks of farmers. They formed 
hierarchical alliances among superior and inferior families, lineages, 
and clans. Their family ranks within military hierarchies allowed for 
strategic calculations in political hypergamy. They gave ‘subaltern’ a 
distinctive meaning: subalterns among warrior clans were junior 
patriarchs in the ranks of lineages and dynasties. A son born to a 
ranking lineage member inherited a family position that provided a 
specific set of options for the ranking of his own family as the son 
became a patriarch himself. Alliances gave subaltern families leverage 
in their struggles to maintain and to improve their position. Becoming 
a subordinate ruler raised the subordinate family’s rank in relation to 
peers and competitors. Accumulating subordinate patriarchs (sa- 
mantas) under one’s own authority was the very definition of a king. 
Among the warrior clans, daughters married up — to express the 
subordination of a patriarch and to seek upward mobility for the 
family — and sons married down, to express the superiority of a 
patriarch by the stature of his allied subalterns. Patriarchal polygamy 
expanded the possibilities of subordinate alliance-building, as women 
became hostages to fortune and some became the mothers of kings. In 
these settings, purdah (female seclusion) and sati (widow immolation) 
became auspicious expressions of female purity, piety, devotion, and 
heroism. Strength and sacrifice sustained one another. In the political 
institutions formed by competitive alliances among warrior patriarchs, 
subordination was a moment of power in which all alliances were built 


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upon measurable inequalities of rank. Dominance rested upon exten- 
sive alliances with subalterns whose movement up in ranks often 
meant challenging superiors in war. War and marriage, militarism and 
family ties, rank and alliance, negotiation and resistance — all together 
formed patriarchal power in the warrior clans. 

Dharma could not produce stable alliances among these groups, 
because warring medieval patriarchs invoked the names of many 
different gods in prayer, and the rituals of war gave losers the option 
of moving out to look for other farmers and warriors to conquer. 
Moving out from Central Asia, Turk and Afghan warrior clans 
pushed Rajputs down the Ganga basin, into high mountain valleys and 
into the central mountains; and they pushed Telugus up the Tungab- 
hadra basin toward Vijayanagar, and Telugu Nayakas into the Tamil 
country. In all the regions of later medieval warrior competition, 
marital and martial techniques of social ranking provided a cultural 
basis for new, sultanic regimes. Rathore Rajputs married daughters to 
sultans before Akbar’s time, and almost all the great Rajput patriarchs 
would marry into the Mughal nobility, strengthening Mughal power 
and opening wide avenues for mobility and advancement for Rajput 
clans, and at the same time opening a status division between rising 
Rajput nobility and lesser Rajput and Thakur lineages. One Rathore 
princess married Prince Salim. He became Jahangir and she bore a son 
who became Shah Jahan, as lesser Rajputs lineages declined. In the 
eighteenth century, Qazi Muhammad Ala said that ordinary chiefs 
(rausa) ‘are now called zamindars’.'” 

In late-medieval times, from the thirteenth to the sixteenth century, 
new institutions of patriarchal ranking evolved; they formed a cultural 
context of sultanic secularism, which contained many kinds of canon, 
idioms of ritual, and moral systems under the umbrella of sultanic 
authority. Sultans rose above all patriarchs. Their regimes compiled 
the small agrarian territories of the early-medieval period into regional 
forms with distinctively early-modern characteristics. By the seven- 
teenth century — most dramatically in Maharashtra and Punjab — 
alliances among imperial, military, fiscal, and agrarian patriarchs 
produced regional patriarchies. Great patriarchs like Shivaji and Guru 
Nanak formed the basis for regional identities of a new kind. Rights of 
first possession expanded metaphorically to include collective rights 


17 Habib, Essays in Indian History, p. 149. 


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for all the people of the dominant castes assembled under a great 
patriarch to rule their homeland. This early formation of territorial 
and ethnic nationality emerged from the expansive powers of patriar- 
chal authority produced under sultanic regimes as it absorbed intense 
attachments to the land among dominant caste farm families and local 
conquest regimes. 

When Rajputs and Mughals married, they tied together two tradi- 
tions of patriarchal power which, though expressed in different 
spiritual idioms, had basic commonalities that formed a coherent logic 
of ranking, competition, and alliance. Mughal sultans became apical 
agents and icons of ranking for all patriarchs below. In the Mughal 
regime, mosque, temple, or church could mark communities of 
sentiment; sacred genealogies could be reckoned from Rome, Pales- 
tine, Arabia, or Aryavarta, because the Mughal institutions of patri- 
archal power — within which patriarchs ranked one another and held 
patrimonial entitlements — superseded and encompassed the ideology 
of dharma. No religion constrained a sultan’s power to confer rank on 
subordinates. A sultan’s status arose from rituals of conquest and 
entitlement whose authority went back to the days of the Gurjara- 
Pratiharas. Sultanic power reached its height under the Mughal, 
Safavid, and Ottoman dynasties, but its logic was not contained by 
Islam. Hindu practitioners included not only the Rajputs but also the 
Rayas of Vijayanagar, who were in effect sultans of the south. The 
English East India Company used sultanic authority for its own 
Christian imperialism. Thus the expansion of Muslim dynastic power 
in South Asia should not be conflated with the expansion of Islam: the 
Mughal imperial system set itself apart from all its predecessors by 
making the rituals and conditions of patriarchal entitlement more 
agnostic than ever before. 

Social ranks defined by Mughal imperial titles inflected the idioms 
of social rank almost everywhere in South Asia, influencing group 
identity subtly and pervasively. From village and caste headmen to hill 
chiefs, to merchants and bankers and artisans; and from Rajputs, and 
titled officers called zamindar, nayaka, chaudhuri, ray chaudhuri, 
jagirdar, palaityakkarar (Poligars), and raja to all kinds of tax farmers — 
positions of leadership, authority, and political mediation in state 
institutions became focal points of social identity formation. Mughal 
entitlements and modes of patriarchal ranking entered family strategies 
of marriage alliance and thus influenced kin-group formation at many 


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levels of society. In the Mughal system, patrimonial entitlements 
depended upon personal recognition by a superior patriarch under the 
authority of the sultan. In families, occupational groups, sectarian 
organisations, and caste and tribal societies, an officially recognised 
headman had to attain his status — at a price — in rituals of state. The 
darbar (sultan’s court) became a centre of transactions that defined 
agrarian territories, locally and regionally, in the ranks of all the 
patriarchs. Moving down the ranks, superiors granted honours, titles, 
and entitlements to those below. Moving up the ranks, inferiors paid 
tribute, service, and allegiance to those above. State revenues were 
collected in return for honours and titles conferred by state authorities; 
and the increasing value of these revenues accumulated at the higher 
ranks as they fed the evolution of early-modern states. At the lowest 
echelons, peasant patriarchs paid for titles to land. 

From 1500 onward, the agrarian utility and spread of money also 
increased along with supplies of precious metals and sultanic curren- 
cies. Money could buy a wider variety of entitlements to resources 
within disparate agrarian territories connected by systems of sultanic 
ranking that were open to participants of all sorts. Aggressive patri- 
archs bought and fought their way into positions of power in agrarian 
territories; they became military officers and revenue intermediaries 
entitled to collect local revenues from local headmen. A diffusion of 
imperial titles and ranks facilitated a broader commercialisation of the 
agrarian economy that was also propelled by the military integration 
of ecologically diverse agricultural territories and by increasing state 
demand for cash payments, as we will see in the next chapter. Buying 
titles and official positions of rank became a basic patriarchal strategy. 
This further accelerated a broad shift away from dharma, caste, and 
Brahman ritualism as the most prominent means to secure assets in 
agrarian territories, though technologies of temple ritual also expanded 
their territorial reach under sultanic regimes. The pace of temple 
building and temple endowment accelerated steadily after 1500, as 
patriarchs with state entitlements and commercial assets sought addi- 
tional resources through investments in temples. 

Politically and socially, any group could be defined by its represen- 
tation at court (darbar). Though temple and caste rituals extended 
their reach, darbari (courtly) dramas had wider powers of incorpora- 
tion and entitlement. Transactions that defined agrarian territory came 
increasingly to focus on key people who provided states with revenue. 


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Mughal revenues fattened the nobility and fuelled the war machinery, 
and, like other acts of submission, paying revenue constituted entitle- 
ments for patriarchs who paid to secure positions of power. Because 
revenue payments secured patrimonial property at every rank — right 
down to the lowest levels of the peasantry — it is understandable that a 
myth emerged among Europeans that the sultan owned all the land in 
India: who would counter this claim when all patriarchs held their 
property rights by submission to the Emperor? In this political culture, 
acts of resistance and rebellion were also acts of negotiation and 
strategic positioning. Patriarchs faced opposition all around — in the 
land, unruly nature; in the home, unruly women; in the fields, unruly 
workers; in the villages, unruly peasants; in the forests, unruly tribes; in 
the provinces, unruly zamindars and rajas — and negotiations among 
patriarchs always had to take into account resistance from below and 
demands from above. Patriarchal expectations for obedience and 
loyalty often met frustration. Many new, assertive identities formed 
around rebellious patriarchs who, like Shivaji, had official entitlements 
to represent ‘their people’ in transactions with higher authorities. 

The Mughal regime brought more kinship groups under one system 
of ranking and military alliance than any before. All its constituent 
groups became designated by terminologies that in effect formed an 
ethnic typology. Ethnic identities, based on combinations of language, 
religion, and region, emerged dramatically among Rajputs, Marathas, 
and Sikhs, but also in many other places at lower registers. Competi- 
tive alliance formation raised the most powerful agrarian patriarchs up 
into the status of regional leaders. Shivaji inherited a jagir that his 
father obtained under Ahmadnagar and he continued the project of 
constructing a multi-jati Maratha warrior-farming elite by acquiring 
titles from other sultans in the Deccan. Over several generations, in a 
long process of competitive alliance-building, conquest, and institu- 
tional formation, Marathas built a state that became deeply involved in 
the enforcement of family ranking and in regulating female behaviour, 
as warrior patriarchs set about defining Maratha territory and identity. 
The subsequent preoccupation of Maratha hagiographers with Shivaji 
as the ideal ruler not only reflects the capacity of Muslim states to 
nurture Hindu leadership, but, more importantly, it represents the 
creation of a semi-deified patriarchal icon around which new collective 
identities were formed, combining ethnicity, language, and religion. 

The long-term interaction of family and statecraft produced geogra- 


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phical patterns in regional styles of kinship within agrarian territories. 
Irawati Karve once argued that more extensive and intensive kinship 
territories typified the northern plains and southern peninsula, respec- 
tively, with Maharashtra being a bridge between the two,'® but Bina 
Agarwal’s more detailed analysis of kinship practices and women’s land 
rights reveals three broad zones of kinship in South Asia. In each zone, 
kin groups form distinctive types of territory and regions are charac- 
terised by the prevalence of the kinship strategies pursued by prominent 
land-owning groups, most importantly dominant castes. The position 
of women is a critical feature of these kinship and territorial regimes. 


(1) The north-east high mountains, the southern peninsula, Sri Lanka, 
and Nepal. 
‘In all of these, women marry either in their natal villages or in 
nearby ones, and close-kin marriages are preferred. There is no 
adherence to purdah, and the overall control of female sexuality is 
less than in other parts of the subcontinent. Women’s labour force 
participation varies between medium and very high.’ 


(2) The western plains and northern basins. 

In Punjab, Haryana, Uttar Pradesh, and Rajasthan, ‘village endo- 
gamy is typically forbidden, marriages are often at some distance 
from the natal village (especially among the upper-caste land 
owning communities), close-kin marriages are usually taboo, 
purdah is practised, control over female sexuality is strict, and 
women’s labour force participation rates are low’. Though in 
Pakistan and Bangladesh, ‘village endogamy and close-kin mar- 
riages are permitted, and women’s inheritance rights are endorsed 
by Islam . . . female seclusion practices negate these advantages to 
a significant degree’. 


(3) The central mountains, Maharashtra, and West Bengal. 
‘Village endogamy is not common but neither is it usually 
forbidden, and women in many communities do marry within the 
village or nearby villages. Some communities do allow close-kin 
marriages. Purdah is practised in some communities and not 
others.’ '? 


18 Trawati Karve, Kinship Organisation in India, Poona, 1953. 
19 Bina Agarwal, A Field of One’s Own: Gender and Land Rights in South Asia, 
Cambridge, 1994, pp. 368-9. 


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Agarwal stresses that tribal kinship patterns, most prevalent today in 
the mountains, differ significantly from those in the agrarian lowlands, 
especially in the amount of sexual activity allowed for women outside 
marriage. Historically, groups called ‘tribes’ are by definition those 
that have been relatively isolated from lowland agrarian states in 
modern times and therefore distant from the enforcers of dharma. 
Tribal groups interact with caste societies and economies but they 
have also been kept apart, especially in the tropical high mountains in 
the north-east. Agarwal notes that the prevalence of tribal commu- 
nities in the central mountains and their territorial admixture with 
non-tribal communities creates the mixed character of her third 
kinship zone. 

The broad division portrayed by Karve and Agarwal is between 
extensive and intensive strategies of kinship alliance, which appear to 
predominate according to the respective influence of warrior colonisa- 
tion and territorial dharma in pre-modern centuries. There is also an 
overlap between forms of kinship territoriality and the prominence of 
irrigated agriculture, rice cultivation, medieval inscriptions, and pas- 
toral nomadism. In general, when we move from low-lying riverine 
tracts of the early-medieval gentry, where older inscriptions cluster, 
into drier areas dominated by warrior-farmers, we see a transition 
from more intensive to more extensive kinship practices. In this same 
transition, we see a shift in the gendered substance of patriarchal 
power. Matrilineal descent was prevalent only in Agarwal’s first zone, 
which also contains territories of intensive kinship where women live 
within a small circle of kin for their whole lives. By contrast, in 
extensive kinship regimes, women pass between distant kin groups as 
icons of family honour and agents in marital alliances. Maharashtra 
contains both kinds of kinship territory, and also transitions not only 
between tribal hills and caste lowlands but between coastal regions of 
more intensive medieval wet farming and interior regions of more 
extensive dry farming. So Maharashtra is not so much a transition 
zone between cultures of the north and south, described by Karve, as 
a mix of practices that characterise different types of agrarian territory. 
A separation of irrigated lowlands from dry uplands also divides 
coastal Andhra from its interior and the Kaveri basin in southern 
Karnataka from the Deccan; and more intensive kinship patterns 
usually pertain in the wetter regions. In general, the distribution of 
more intensive forms of kinship even today coincides with that of 


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more intensive farming in pre-modern centuries. Extensive regimes, 
like warrior power, spread widely over time. Extensive kinship 
strategies concentrate today in territories which have more pastoral 
nomadism and warrior colonisation in their agrarian history. In 
Maharashtra, Bihar, Bengal, Bangladesh, and elsewhere, extensive 
warrior patterns of kinship were imposed upon more intensive local 
strategies, creating elite alliances and models of status which diffused 
downward like the powers of dharma. Extensive kinship patterns 
would have helped to extend the agricultural frontier in the east, and 
more intensive kinship forms perhaps developed in old pastoral areas 
that became characterised in modern times by more intensive irrigated 
farming, especially in Punjab. A mixing of kinship forms occurred 
everywhere with the rampant migratory resettlements of the early- 
modern period. In the Tamil country, Telugu warriors settled tracts 
between river valleys and some have retained extensive kinship 
strategies and even observed purdah until recently. 

Despite all the imperfections in the fit between old farming regimes 
and kinship, we can see that intensive kinship alliance-building is a 
good strategy for protecting family property in local communities and 
territories. Family alliances that formed the local gentry also produced 
the funds and controlled the labour which built up early-medieval 
irrigation and paddy cultivation. Patriarchs sought to control contigu- 
ous territories for the expansion of succeeding generations. Marriages 
formed dense links among dominant families, who became related to 
one another like their paddy fields, as sustenance flowed from one 
family to another and from one generation to the next. Families 
partitioned social space into contiguous kinship territories, which 
became more diverse by the inclusion of new groups into jatis and by 
the fissioning of lineages, but retained an intricately kin flavour. In 
riverine lowlands, kinship stressed local alliances among families and 
formed intricately graded ranks within gentry strata. Families main- 
tained a genealogical sense of descent from medieval kings, but 
domestic patriarchy concentrated on markers of status within local 
communities. The marriage of sons and daughters was normatively 
contrived within finely graded social strata, within close proximity to 
the natal village, and within an existing nexus of family ties. Agricul- 
tural communities and regions were organised around webs of inten- 
sive, intersecting family alliances. On the Tamil coast, it would not be 
uncommon for people to be related to one another in several ways at 


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once, as a result of cross-cousin marriages over generations. The 
language of family permeated all the institutions of agrarian patri- 
mony, as the meanings of pangu, pangali, kulam, nadu, and nattar 
attest. Institutionalised among dominant castes, the intensive pattern 
of kinship and its idioms of village share-holding also became typical 
among agricultural workers and other groups in irrigated regions of 
the medieval era. In this setting, appropriate female decorum is a 
community as well as a family concern. Husband and wife are most 
often reckoned as kin from birth, sharing the same agrarian home- 
space. A wife’s devotion to her husband does not need to conflict with 
loyalty to her father; and, though she leaves her father’s house at 
marriage, she in effect never leaves home. Migration brought similar 
types of family networks into being in nested agglomerations of 
family ties that came to characterise the paddy-growing lowlands. 

In the dry territories of nomadism and in domains of conquest 
colonisation, by contrast, and particularly among warrior colonisers 
such as the Rajputs and Jats, a woman’s transition from daughter to 
wife came to mean moving into the household of a stranger whose 
superiority to her father was dramatised in the marriage itself. 
Patriarchal strategies of marriage alliance designed for upward mobi- 
lity put women in a difficult, intermediary position, as marriage 
helped to extend lineage power out over territory in a pattern like that 
of the banyan tree. Expressions of family power focused on the wife as 
the icon of her family’s honour and rank. Multiple marriages expanded 
the power of a great patriarch, his wives being ranked as representa- 
tives of their fathers. A woman’s devotion to her in-laws always 
conflicted in principle with loyalty to her parents and siblings. 
Personal, intimate, ritualised expressions of devotion to her husband 
as opposed to her father were built into the disciplinary activities 
particularly of her mother-in-law, who had survived this same transi- 
tion. But the status of wife and mother in a superior family could also 
open up new opportunities for her natal kin and their offspring; so 
that serving her husband would most likely be her father’s most 
fervent desire, because pleasing her husband would be the best way to 
improve her natal family’s prospects. Purdah and sati became particu- 
larly widespread as auspicious expressions of female purity, sacrificial 
devotion, sacred heroism, and divine power. Extreme controls over 
female sexuality enhanced family honour in a culture of heroic 
sacrifice and harsh discipline. Sati became divine at landmarks of 


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heroism which marked warrior territory. Forts and palaces enshrine 
the valour of great men. Perched high above Ajmer on a rocky 
mountain ledge, Prithvi Raj Chauhan’s fort has today become an icon 
of militant Hindu nationalism. At Mandu, it is said, hundreds of 
palace women became sati as the sultan marched his troops to death in 
battle. At Mandore, in 1459, Rao Jodha ‘took an extreme step to 
ensure that the new site proved auspicious’ by burying alive one 
Rajiya Bambi in the foundations of the new fort, promising that ‘his 
family and descendants would be looked after by the Rathores’.?° 


20 Dhananajaya Singh, The House of Marwar, New Delhi, 1994, p. 33. 


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In the fourteenth century, South Asia became a region of travel and 
transport connecting Central Asia and the Indian Ocean. This rede- 
fined the location of all its agrarian territories. In the wake of the 
Mongols, overland corridors of routine communication extended 
from the Silk Road to Kanya Kumari and branched out to seaports 
along the way. Connections among distant parts of Eurasia became 
numerous and routine. New technology, ideas, habits, languages, 
people and needs came into farming communities. New elements 
entered local cuisine. People produced new powers of command, 
accumulation, and control, focused on strategic urban sites in agrarian 
space. By 1600, ships sailed between China, Gujarat, Europe, and 
America. Horses trotted across the land between Tajikistan and 
Egypt, Moscow and Madurai. Camels caravaned between Syria and 
Tibet, Ajmer, and Agra. A long expansion in world connections 
occurred during centuries when a visible increase in farming intensity 
was also reshaping agrarian South Asia. In the dry, interior uplands, 
warriors built late-medieval dynasties, on land formerly held by 
pastoralists and nomads; and sultans established a new political 
culture, whose hegemony would last to the nineteenth century. Slow 
but decisive change during late-medieval centuries laid the basis for 
more dramatic trends after 1500, when agricultural expansion acceler- 
ated along with the mobility and the local agrarian power of warriors 
and merchants. Regional formations of agrarian territory came into 
being, sewn together by urban networks, during a distinctively early- 
modern period of agrarian history, whose patterns of social power, 
agricultural expansion, and cultural change embrace the empires of 
Akbar and the East India Company. 


FRONTIERS 


As we have seen, early-medieval farming concentrated production, 
population, and political power in lowland riverine sites where 
perennial drainage and predictable rains supported intensive land use, 


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stable food supplies, Brahmans, temples, and kings. From Mauryan 
times onward, wells, dams, channels, and tanks (walls of earth and 
stone built across routes of drainage to irrigate the land below) marked 
sites across the northern basins, the eastern coastal plains, and 
northern Sri Lanka. After the Guptas, inscriptions indicate that 
irrigation building accelerated in all these areas and that it reached a 
crescendo in the thirteenth century, which corresponds with the rise 
and peak of medieval dynasties, temple building, and epigraphy. By 
1100, inscriptions indicate that wet and dry cultivation were expanding 
into new areas. This did not involve major technological change but 
did alter the geography of agriculture significantly. On the whole, it 
seems, sedentary farmers preferred to clear drier land — which could be 
irrigated by various means, most prominently by wells — rather than 
pioneering in densely forested tropical foothills and high valleys. 
Intensive agriculture expanded into the drier up-river and interfluvial 
lands much more rapidly than into heavily wooded hills and tropical 
jungles. In the process, pastoral nomadism was displaced and its 
human and animal resources steadily absorbed into agrarian societies, 
which thereby enhanced their abilities to engage in long-distance 
trade, use dry land productively, and make war. The proportionately 
greater influence of formerly pastoral peoples in agrarian societies in 
the dry interior — from Kabul and Punjab down to the southern 
Deccan — became a major mark of their aig distinctiveness. 

Tribal communities had a huge world mostly to themselves in 
tropical and subtropical jungles full of wild animals, wood, fruits, 
herbs, spices, and many other items for local use and trade in the high 
mountains, central mountains, and Western Ghats. We have no 
statistics, but the population and land area committed to shifting, 
swidden plots — ‘slash-and-burn’ cultivation, called jhum in many 
areas, but also bewar, marhan, etc., and practised in a great variety of 
ways — surely must have increased over the centuries. Jbum was the 
first kind of cultivation to influence forest growth in the eastern 
Ganga basin, Bengal, and the central mountains, and in many places, 
the only kind until the nineteenth century. Jhum sites formed terri- 
tories of rotating cultivation over expanding stretches of forest and 
they supported complex systems of exchange and interaction among 
different kinds of agrarian societies. The social formation of jhum and 
of permanent field cultivation, respectively, came to be characterised 
by the contrast between caste and tribal societies and, eventually, 


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between hills and plains; the two systems maintained their social 
distance and otherness, even as they interacted and overlapped. 
Sedentary farmers tended, in the long run, to usurp tribal territories, 
however, and in a broad sense these two forms of agrarian society 
were in competition for land, labour, and natural resources. Well into 
the nineteenth century, this competition was usually invisible, because 
jhum cultivators could move further afield as farmers encroached 
upon the forest, moving onto land already clear for jhum. In 1885, 
when W. W. Hunter, as Director-General of Statistics in British India, 
sent a circular to district officers to ascertain techniques of ‘land 
reclamation’, he received responses that describe the interaction of 
peasant and tribal cultivators in Maldah, Gonda, and Nimar, which lie 
on the eastern, northern, and western rim lands of the central 
mountains. Typically, the Maldah collector said of Santals: “Their 
habit is to clear the jungle and then make the land fit for cultivation. 
As soon as they have done this they sell their holdings to Muham- 
madan cultivators and spend the price of it in feasting and drinking 
and move to clear new pieces of land.’! 

Sedentary agrarian society — especially landlords, overlords, and 
financiers — did not always pay for the land, of course, and encroach- 
ments into tribal land did cause conflict in medieval times. As we have 
seen, many inscriptions depict the conquest and absorption of tribal 
cultivators by sedentary communities. But, as long as forest lands 
remained in abundance, jhum cultivators could move away, deeper 
into the jungle. In general, this involved relocations at higher eleva- 
tions, up the slopes away from advancing lowlanders; and eventually 
tribal societies were confined predominantly to mountain forests. 

In 1798, Francis Buchanan described jhum cultivation near Chit- 
tagong, and its moving borderland with rice farming on the coastal 
plain: 

During the dry season, the natives of these places cut down to the root all the 
bushes growing on a hilly tract. After drying for some time the bush wood is set 
on fire, and. . . as much of the large timber as possible is destroyed . . . The whole 
surface of the ground is now covered with ashes, which soak with the first rain, 
and serve as manure. No sooner has the ground been softened by the first showers 


of the season than the cultivator begins to plant. To his girdle he fixes a small 
basket containing a promiscuous mixture of seeds of all the different plants raised 


' Dietmar Rothermund, ‘A Survey of Rural Migration and Land Reclamation in India, 
1885’, Journal of Peasant Studies, 4, 3, 1977, 233. 


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in Jooms. These plants are chiefly rice, cotton, Capsicum, indigo, and . . . fruits. 
In one hand the cultivator then takes an iron pointed dibble with which he strikes 
the ground, making small holes . . . Into these holes he with his other hand drops 
a few seeds ... as chance directs, and leaves the further rearing of the crop to 
nature.” 


Buchanan goes on to say that perennial farming along the Chittagong 
lowlands had not supplanted jhum, and that some paddy fields were 
so new that they were still pocked with huge tree stumps. In the 
mountains, he reported jhum to be the only cultivation. The cultural 
contrast between hills and plains people emerged for him starkly in the 
fact that highland farmers were not Muslims; they worshipped what 
Buchanan called a form of Shiva. This indicates a more general pattern: 
hill peoples developed sophisticated agrarian territories in highland 
forests and jungles where they remained culturally independent of the 
agrarian lowlands. This was true in the mountain borderlands of the 
Deccan as well, where forest rajas ruled the land until they were 
uprooted by warriors and farmers under the Maratha regime.? 

In the 1880s, jhum land was still being steadily converted into 
permanent cultivation all around the vast expanse of the central 
mountains. All along the northern basins, permanent farming commu- 
nities seem to have moved much more slowly into the tropical forests 
than into the drier plains and high valleys. The A’in-i Akbari indicates 
that, in 1595, high-quality rice was being grown on the banks of the 
Ghagar and Sarju rivers up to Dugaon and Bahraich, when wild 
elephants filled the land north of the Sarju, along the Rapti and 
Gandak, and around Gorakhpur. Paying bounty for wild elephants 
was still a significant item of state expenditure in Sylhet in the 1770s, 
and the village of Changel, in northern Bihar, was typical of that 
region in being ‘settled’ by permanent cultivation only in the eight- 
eenth century. Farmers expanded wheat, pulse, and millet cultivation 
into the lightly wooded land in the western basin around Agra 
centuries before they cut down forests south of the Yamuna and in the 
uplands of the Gomati, which remained jungle in 1800. The drier west 
of the Ganga basin had many advantages. Not only was it easier to 


? Francis Buchanan, ‘An Account of a Journey Undertaken by Order of the Board of 
Trade through the Provinces of Chittagong and Tipperah in Order to Look Out for the 
Places Most Proper for the Cultivation of Spices, March—May, 1798’, quoted in Richard M. 
Eaton, The Rise of Islam and the Bengal Frontier, 1204-1760, Berkeley, 1994, pp. 236—-37- 

3 Sumit Guha, ‘Forest Politics and Agrarian Empires: The Khandesh Bhils, c1700—1850”, 
Indian Economic and Social History Review, 33, 2, 1996, 133-55. 


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clear and plough, but plenty of land lay all around for animal grazing, 
and trade routes extended in every direction. Uplands were more 
attractive when they were more temperate, suitable for seasonal 
grazing, free of malaria, and strategically situated. Valleys into the high 
mountains of the Indus basin were prominent agrarian sites in ancient 
and early-medieval times. Taxila and Gandhara were core sites under 
the Mauryas. Kashmir, Kangra, and Champa have many medieval 
inscriptions. When the Chinese traveller Hsuan Tsang visited Punjab 
in the seventh century, he did notice fertile land around towns in the 
upper doabs, but he described in more detail the splendid orchards 
and fields in submontane tracts and all along water courses in the hill 
valleys. The flatlands in the upper Punjab doabs do not seem to have 
been heavily farmed in the first millennium. The absence of inscrip- 
tions in what would later become the heartland of agrarian Punjab 
may explain its relatively low Brahman population and lack of 
Brahmanical cultural influence, as compared with Kangra and 
Champa. Early-medieval dry farming developed in Sindh, around 
Multan, and in Rajasthan, where the Persian wheel and step wells are 
attested by Kasyapa’s Krsisukti. From here, Jat farmers seem to have 
moved into the upper Punjab doabs and into the western Ganga basin 
in the first half of the second millennium. We have noticed previously 
that the prehistoric Saraswati once ran into Rajasthan, and the surface 
desiccation and deepening of groundwater that are indicated by its 
disappearance seem to have continued to make the lower Indus basin 
and western plains increasingly drought prone across the first millen- 
nium. This would have encouraged Jats to move with their herds 
toward the hills, into western Uttar Pradesh and Punjab, to farm land 
where more water was within reach of their wells. Jat migrations 
would have accompanied a slow conversion of lineages from pastor- 
alism to farming and the extension of Rajput conquest colonisation. 
All these trends combined to open new agricultural territories from 
Panipat to Sialkot along very old trade routes running from Kabul to 
Agra. By the sixteenth century, Jalandhar and Lahore were thriving 
towns surrounded by lush farmland. By this time also, behind the Salt 
Range, Paxtun clans had moved down along the Kabul river to build 
farming communities around irrigation in the Peshawar valley.* 


4 See Romila Thapar, “The Scope and Significance of Regional History’, in Romila 
Thapar, Ancient Indian Social History: Some Interpretations, Hyderabad, 1978, pp. 361-773 
and Robert Nichols, ‘Settling the Frontier: Land, Law, and Society in the Peshawar Valley, 


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Wheat lands expanded west of the Ganga and in Punjab doabs 
astride trade routes and around old trading towns where distinctively 
urban commercial and administrative groups were already prominent, 
above all Khatris. As farmland expanded in spaces between the plains 
and high mountains, new opportunities for trade arose at ecological 
boundaries, and this stimulated more commercially oriented produc- 
tion and processing. By the sixteenth century, tobacco, sugarcane, 
honey, fruits, vegetables, and melons fed Punjab commercial life, 
along with profits from sericulture, indigo, and all the elements of 
cloth manufacturing. Down river, Multan featured cotton, opium, and 
sugarcane. Similarly in Gujarat, where early-medieval farming seems 
to have clustered along rivers and trade routes that connected the 
Maurya heartland with the Persian Gulf, mixed irrigated and dry 
cultivation expanded into forests and plains, toward the mountains, 
again producing more ecologically diverse farm territories that stimu- 
lated more commodity production. In the sixteenth century, ship 
builders worked in Broach, Surat, Navsari, Gogha, and Daman; on the 
plains running up to the Vindhyas, Satpuras, and Aravallis, farmers 
grew sugarcane, fruits, and melons; and farms produced all the 
elements of cotton and silk cloth manufacture. As in Punjab, trade 
routes in Gujarat also ran across various territories endowed with 
complementary natural resources. More ecological diversity in farm 
territories encouraged commodity crop specialisation and a combina- 
tion of agrarian activities developed that formed the basis for textile 
industries. 

Along the coast from Gujarat south to Kanya Kumari and north- 
east to Bengal, the expansion of farm territories connected the sea and 
mountains, and sites along the coast were also connected to one 
another by water routes. Coastal territories collected commodities 
from forests, fisheries, and wet and dry farming, as intensive agricul- 
ture expanded inland. Ship building depended upon tall timbers from 
the uplands, and mountain products such as pepper and other spices 
were prime commodities for the overseas trade. From the twelfth 
century onward, farmers were also moving upland to clear dry lands 
and build new irrigation along the Kaveri, Krishna, and Godavari 
rivers. Like the Kongu region in the Kaveri basin — around Coimba- 


1500-1900’, Ph.D. dissertation, University of Pennsylvania, 1997. This and the paragraphs 
below draw heavily on Irfan Habib, An Atlas of Mughal Empire: Political and Economic 
Maps with Notes, Bibliography and Index, Delhi, 1982. 


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tore — the up-river tracts in Andhra, Maharashtra, and Berar were rich 
with black cotton soil. Dry farms in the interior combined with old 
farm societies along the irrigated coast to produce all the raw materials 
for the textile industry and to provide profitable sites for weaving. 
One community of weavers migrated from Saurashtra to set up 
operations in Madurai, and the mobility and versatility of many 
professional weaving communities in the peninsula came from their 
experience in the dry zones of military competition, trade, and 
agricultural expansion which tied together the black cotton soil of the 
upland interior and the corridors of the sea trade during late medieval 
centuries.” 

In Bengal, dense tropical forests posed a formidable obstacle for 
farmers, and farming frontiers moved steadily south and east, deeper 
into the delta, as they also moved north-west into Chota Nagpur and 
north-east into the Brahmaputra basin. Gupta-era inscriptions appear 
at the top of the old delta in West Bengal. Pala and Sena epigraphy has 
a somewhat wider distribution in the lower delta. But before the 
fourteenth century, land grant inscriptions still concentrated on the 
relatively high ground to the north, east, and west of the low, deltaic 
flood lands. In the fourteenth century, the shift of the Ganga delta to 
the east encouraged farmers to move in that direction, but, in 1605, 
sites of Mughal documentation still clustered in the north and west, 
though they also extended to the Meghna river and clustered again 
around Dhaka. The expansion of cultivation from the fourteenth to 
the eighteenth century moved farming closer to the sea and into the 
mountains. It created a rich, expanding zone of interaction between 
sea lanes, mountains, and the northern basins, along the riverine 
highways.® 

Everywhere, conquest colonisation added muscle to agrarian expan- 
sion. Pastoral and hunting peoples were conquered. Raja Bhoj built 
his massive tank near Bhopal in the eleventh century. The Kakatiyas 
made Telangana into land of tank irrigation in the thirteenth century; 
and one of their tanks, near Warangal, drains 80 square miles.” In the 
fourteenth century, warriors from Afghanistan and Turkestan fought 


5 Mattison Mines, The Warrior Merchants: Textiles, Trade and Territory in Southern 
India, Cambridge, 1984; Prasannan Parthasarathi, “Weavers, Merchants and States: The 
South Indian Textile Industry, 1680-1800’, Harvard University dissertation, 1992. 

6 B. M. Morrison, Political Centers and Cultural Regions in Early Bengal, Tucson, 1970; 
Eaton, The Rise of Islam and the Bengal Frontier, pp. 17-27; Habib, Atlas, Map 11. 

7 Cynthia Talbot, manuscript of chapter 4 of forthcoming book on medieval Andhra and 


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their way into rapidly expanding agrarian territories and built rocky 
fortress towns in the uplands and dry plains which became new 
centres of coercive power along trade routes. Fort-cities arose at Kota 
(1264), Bijapur (1325), Vijayanagar (1336), Gulbarga (1347), Jaunpur 
(1359), Hisar (1361), Ahmedabad (1413), Jodhpur (1465), Ludhiana 
(1481), Ahmadnagar (1494), Udaipur (1500), and Agra (1506). Delhi 
began its long career. Accounts of famine, plague, and food scarcity 
also begin to multiply, clustered around new warrior capitals. Reports 
of death and distress indicate that disease also migrated across Eurasia 
and that hard human costs were paid for war. New dynasties increased 
population density in fortress and town in dry landscapes with erratic 
seasons and precarious water supplies; and deadly sieges, droughts, 
and disease led to the abandonment and destruction of numerous 
centres, grand examples being Vijayanagar and Fatehpur Sikri. None- 
theless, after 1300, major new urban sites became permanent and they 
marked a new kind of territoriality, which focused on the sultan’s 
darbar. Regions of warrior power formed around capitals that became 
sites for the articulation of commerce, war, industry, and farming, and 
also of regional identities and dharma. Warrior states built roads and 
carried their demands for revenue across old divisions among agrarian 
territories; and they founded and protected sites of trade at ecological 
boundaries and along old trade routes. Most importantly, their 
conquests and demands for tribute connected the dry interior regions, 
coastal plains, and ocean ports; so they integrated agrarian spaces that 
ran up to the mountains and down to the sea, and these connections 
made agrarian territory more commercially active. Sultans also in- 
vested in the fertility of the land. When Firoz Tughluq built the 
Western Jamuna Canal along old riverbeds north of Delhi, he began a 
tradition of large-scale state investments in irrigation that would make 
his capital a model for a new kind of agrarian urbanism — a site for 
intersecting, often conflicting interests among warriors, farmers, and 
financiers, who all invested in agriculture on an increasingly commer- 
cial basis within the framework of institutions of state revenue 
collection. 


‘The Making of Andhradesh’, South Asia Seminar presentation at the University of 
Pennsylvania, 29 October 1997. 


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SULTANS 


From the fourteenth century onward, it becomes increasingly relevant 
for historians to ask if state power was being used to coerce commer- 
cial cropping and if warriors were impoverishing peasants with 
increasing (and often violent) demands for revenue. Many historians 
have answered ‘yes’ to both questions, but some qualifications and 
further research are necessary. Certainly, subsistence-first farming 
strategies would have prevailed in peasant societies, but the idea was 
also prominent that agriculture can be profitable and provide state 
revenue at the same time. When peasants paid warriors, they certainly 
incurred a loss, but did they gain anything? There is a tendency to see 
late-medieval history in terms of war and conquest, but Ibn Battuta 
was perhaps as typical of the age as Khaljis and Tughlugs; and in the 
fourteenth century, though warriors did use force to collect taxes, 
there was also commercial revenue in farming communities over and 
above what would have been necessary to pay taxes. Ibn Battuta — like 
Abu-| Fazl and Hamilton Buchanan — viewed his world in commercial 
terms and, standing outside the state, he does not indicate that 
coercion was needed to generate commodities. At each stop in his 
journey, he observed everyday commercialism. ‘Bangala is a vast 
country, abounding in rice,’ he wrote, ‘and nowhere in the world have 
I seen any land where prices are lower than there.’ In Turkestan, ‘the 
horses . . . are very numerous and the price of them is negligible’. He 
was pleased to see commercial security, as he did during eight months 
trekking from Goa to Quilon. ‘I have never seen a safer road than 
this,’ he reported, ‘for they put to death anyone who steals a single 
nut, and if any fruit falls no one picks it up but the owner.’ He also 
noted that ‘most of the merchants from Fars and Yemen disembark’ at 
Mangalore, where ‘pepper and ginger are exceedingly abundant’. In 
1357, John of Marignola, an emissary to China from Pope Benedict 
XII, also stopped at Quilon, which he described as ‘the most famous 
city in the whole of India, where all the pepper in the world grows’. 
Though we inherit most commercial evidence from coastal sites, 
similar observations could have been made along trade routes that 
connected inland ecological zones where exchange economies thrived. 
In the more sparsely populated open spaces of the interior — away 


8 M.S. Randhawa, A History of Agriculture in India, Delhi, 1986, vol. 11, pp. 68-9. 


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from the sea — forced revenue collections were part of war for 
participants on all sides, including peasants, who fled, fought, and 
farmed for subsistence or profit, as the season allowed. Inscriptions 
from the Tamil coast indicate that monetary instruments were being 
used to establish entitlements to agrarian assets by the ninth century; 
and over the centuries, as more families bought the materials for their 
own subsistence by exchanging goods and services, farmers sold more 
and more. Coercion did abound in agriculture, to be sure, but by the 
sixteenth century the militant Mughal tax machine forced its way into 
agrarian territories which already had active money economies and 
substantial commercial farming. The cotton textile economy gave even 
rugged warrior-peasants in black soil tracts an abiding interest in 
commodity production. Patriarchs in farming communities could 
secure their entitlements to land and labour by paying tribute, and 
under the Mughals, if not before, the revenue system itself had become 
a major source of agrarian profit. Commerce and taxation evolved 
together and supported one another in violent territories of agricul- 
tural expansion. 

Trends that begin to assemble the elements of modern agrarian 
environments are sufficiently visible in the sixteenth century to justify 
using the phrase ‘early-modern’ for the period circa 15 50-1850. Doing 
this simply highlights some particular features of historical change 
during this period, which are better documented from Akbar’s time 
onward, though some began much earlier, most importantly urbanisa- 
tion. Abu-l Fazl mentions 180 large cities and 2,837 towns, and bigger 
cities embellished more powerful states. Urban sites had always 
accumulated various kinds of powers within agrarian landscapes but, 
after 1550, transactions that harnessed moving elements in agriculture 
were tied more extensively to darbars and markets. Hierarchies of 
central places also emerge more clearly from Mughal times onward. 
Cities that defined early-modern territories include Dhaka, Calcutta, 
Lucknow, Delhi, Agra, Lahore, Multan, Surat, Ahmedabad, Bombay, 
Pune, Bangalore, Hyderabad, Madras, Cochin, and Trivandrum. Some 
elements that define modern cultural regions — linguistic, literary, 
ethnic, and religious — were already in place in 1500, but regions 
become more clearly institutionalised in the following centuries. Forts 
and armies created strategically dominant sites for stabilising regional 
cultures. First Devagiri and then Ahmadnagar, Aurangabad, Junnar, 
and Pune defined an emerging Marathi linguistic and cultural area 


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within regional networks of peasant-warrior alliance and religious 
pilgrimage; and Marathas refer to maharashtradharma, ‘the dharma 
specific to Maharashtra’? By the seventeenth century, Warangal, 
Golkonda, and Vijayanagar redefined ‘Andhra desa’ as a land that 
included both the coast and the dry interior, which was called “Telugu 
country’ for the first time in the fourteenth century. The Hoysalas 
built a new, lasting centre of power in a new Kannada heartland at 
Dvarasamudra, named for its irrigation tank (Sanskrit = samudra) and 
poised above the Mysore plateau and the upper Kaveri basin.'° There 
is a telling eighteenth-century map in the British Museum that depicts 
Mughal territory as strings of urban sites connected by routes of 
transportation, running from Kabul to Bengal and Berar. In each 
central place, a Mughal official would have drawn a similar map in his 
mind to connect his own headquarters to all the towns subordinate to 
his authority .. . and so on down the line . . . down to little villages. 
Around these sites of accumulation and mobility, regional networks of 
agrarian territory took physical and institutional form in hierarchies of 
power, authority, and influence. 

In 1790, East India Company officers drew identical maps of their 
own territories. This kind of linear, transactional, urban territoriality 
had an increasing impact on agrarian space from Akbar’s time onward, 
and it provoked new forms of documentation to suit environments of 
inter-city mobility and communication. Inscriptions declined in 
number and significance. Portable paper documents dominate the 
historical record after 1550. The new records come not only from 
ritual sites but also from specialist accountants, surveyors, preachers, 
travellers, merchants, and tax collectors; and they are composed in 
many languages. These records touch upon agriculture over much 
wider spaces in more standard terms than did their medieval predeces- 
sors. They are concerned above all with trade and revenue. Though 
localised in detail, early-modern agricultural data can be compiled to 
form general impressions. The old inscriptional corpus represented an 
agricultural archipelago of core sites separated by empirically empty 
space; its transactions were disconnected from one another. Thus there 
is no compendium of inscriptional data that covers even a fraction of 
the area covered by Abu-l Fasl’s A’in-i-Akbari. Early-modern states 


? Sumit Guha, ‘An Indian Penal Regime: Maharashtra in the Eighteenth Century’, Past & 
Present, 147, 1995, 101-27 
10 Cynthia Talbot, The Making of Andhradesh’. 


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produced increasingly detailed, comprehensive data on the conduct of 
farming, during more widespread, regular, and financially complex 
state revenue transactions; and not only in Mughal domains. In 
Karnataka, ‘black books’ came into vogue for accounts in monastic 
and landlord estates. Local chronicles in Assam record the first 
manpower census in 1510, and Ahoms started a land survey in 1681.!? 
In the seventeenth century, a number of different institutions — states, 
temples, monasteries, wagf endowments, businesses, and landed 
estates — generated texts to indicate that statistical accounts were 
becoming more popular in asset management. Mughal revenue and 
monetary records reflect a general rise of statistical accounting. The 
A’in-i-Akbari measured agricultural production, manufacturing 
output, and trade by the value of state revenues; it converts territory 
into exchange value. These accounts were disciplinary devices to track 
people and their obligations. Institutional accounts had been produced 
earlier, for specific transactions and endowments, as in the twelfth- 
century accounts of the Chola emperors who recorded all the costs 
and rights involved in royal temple construction. Vijayanagar inscrip- 
tions use tabular statistics in the fourteenth century and later separate 
numbers from text in tabular accounts using standardised units of 
measure. By the sixteenth century, accounting, coinage, cash calcula- 
tions, commercial entitlements, and tax discipline all travelled together 
among urban centres of state power. They produced new landscapes 
of knowledge and agrarian textuality as they organised territory into 
regions of value and hierarchy. 

The A’in-: Akbari stands alone, however. It did not become a 
template for imperial accounts and seems never to have been up-dated 
or replicated. Personal devotion to Akbar motivated Abu-| Fazl, and 
Akbar ruled a personal empire as he moved among its urban centres. 
His domain was transactional, built upon personal alliances, and, 
however wide spreading, it never produced a revenue bureaucracy. 
Our documentation concerning seventeenth- and eighteenth-century 
revenue conditions actually improves in the late eighteenth century 
when the English East India Company did retrospective assessments. 
It seems that Mughal tax demands peaked under Aurangzeb but 
Company officials could not reconstruct a good record of taxation 


11 Amalendu Guha, “The Medieval Economy of Assam’, in Tapan Raychaudhuri and 
Irfan Habib, ed., The Cambridge Economic History of India, vol. 1, Cambridge, 1982, 
p- 485. 


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before 1700. It is reasonable to conclude that recorded rates of taxation 
which we find dating back to the Arthasastra and running down to 
1700 — including the A’-i-Akbari — represent normative guidelines 
for official activity more than accounts of regularised assessments and 
collections. This is not to say that taxes were not collected or assessed 
with any regularity — medieval inscriptions are replete with tax 
accounts — but rather that there was an empirical gap between Jocal tax 
practices and regional documentation, which continued through the 
eighteenth century and which early-modern state officials worked 
hard to eliminate, including, no doubt, Abu-l Fazl. Eighteenth- 
century states produced substantial evidence to indicate that they were 
systematising agrarian taxation, and extending and regularising proce- 
dures which had been instituted under the Mughals. The Risala-i 
Zira’t (“Treatise on Agriculture], commissioned by the Company in 
1785, describes a process of standardisation in regional revenue 
practice in Bengal which had been going on for perhaps fifty years; 
though state taxation and accounting were much older than this and 
though even this standardisation was probably more normative than 
regulatory.'2 The Company continued to standardise a revenue 
system, and its territories were defined as regions of official knowl- 
edge, regulated state income, and government authority. Maratha, 
Mysore, Sikh, and other regimes did the same.'*? As the Company 
built its tax routines, it utilised ideas and techniques which had been 
practised and circulated among state intellectuals across Eurasia for 
several centuries, and Company intellectuals added some new ideas 
from England. Persian techniques for assessment, accounting, and 
granting entitlements moved through Mughal domains into Bengal 
and thus into Company blueprints for zamindari revenue settlements 
there. Mughal and European practices mingled in eighteenth-century 
Maratha territories, where they produced detailed village accounts, 
and Maratha practices travelled with Brahman accountants via Mysore 
and Hyderabad into Company survey and revenue offices in Madras. 


12 See Harbans Mukhia, Perspectives on Medieval History, New Delhi, 1933, pp. 259-94. 

13 This trend is not confined to South Asia. From about 1450 to 1830, Myanmar, 
Thailand, Vietnam, France, Russia, and Japan ‘all exhibit tendencies ... toward political 
consolidation, administrative centralization, cultural integration, and social regulation. The 
dynamics underlying these developments are related to economic growth, military competi- 
tion, accumulation of institutional expertise and intellectual support for political order.’ 
Victor Lieberman, “Transcending East-West dichotomies: State and Culture Formation in 
Six Ostensibly Disparate Areas’ (The Eurasian Context of the Early Modern History of 
Mainland South East Asia, 1400-1800), Modern Asian Studies, 31, 3, 1997, 463—507- 


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English debates about land revenue and land rights adapted old ideas 
from many sources to build colonial understandings of agriculture. 
Company intellectual practices drew upon many other regimes and its 
agrarian discourse was thus more distinctively early-modern and 
broadly Eurasian than narrowly British or even European. 
Early-modern texts focus their attention on the power of absolute 
rulers and on the rights, titles, and obligations of ranked individuals in 
revenue transactions that delivered agrarian wealth into the treasury. 
Early-modern imperial taxation, as it affected most villages, seems in 
general to have been more in the nature of tribute, being coerced, 
irregular, and arbitrary. Taxation itself was ancient, going back to the 
Mauryas. But imperial taxation had never been widely routinised, 
legitimised, and integrated within local institutions that contained most 
tax transactions until the late eighteenth century. Inscriptions indicate 
that early-medieval agrarian territories were defined transactionally by 
various transfers of wealth among farming localities through state 
officials, merchants, and temples. Transactions between villages and 
kings secured local entitlements, and these are the main business for 
many inscriptions. Payments for local goods and services and the 
transfer of local entitlements generated income for local gentry; and 
they in turn paid samantas and rajas to maintain their own local 
authority. Such payments by local leaders to secure local entitlements 
increased steadily after 1300. The Mughal imperial system collected 
wealth from a great many localities through powerful intermediaries — 
zamindars and rajas — as Mughal jagirdars inserted themselves mili- 
tarily into existing territories of payment-for-entitlement. Empire 
evolved as a many-layered cake of authority and entitlement.'* The 
people at the top did not have much to say about what went on at the 
bottom. They focused rather on funnelling more wealth to the top and 
on regulating transactions above the ranks of raja and zamindar. 
Mughal records never did dig below the level of zamindars or keep 
track of payments moving up the hierarchy from villages and towns, 
to regional centres, to the imperial capital. Eighteenth-century states 
developed this capacity. Records from Maratha, Sikh, and Company 
capitals enumerate local payments-for-entitlement and could track 
payments to regional authorities; and some regional authorities could 


14 This phrase comes from Richard Danzig, “The Many Layered Cake: A Case Study of 
Reform of the Indian Empire’, Modern Asian Studies, 3,1, 1969, 57-96. 


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even regulate local systems. But such local administrative powers in 
wide-spreading revenue transactions were tenuous and eighteenth- 
century wars made them more costly to maintain. Before 1800, it 
seems, Marathas did the most local administrative regulation. The 
Company’s Native State treaties and early zamindari settlements 
continued the conventional practice of collecting revenue through 
intermediaries who were granted open-ended local authority in return. 
This kept down central costs of imperial administration and it also had 
the advantage of rewarding subordinate allies with the incentive to 
raise the value of their own territories, and thus to expand the extent 
of their own revenue collections. It was only after 1800 that Sikh and 
Company regimes developed the power to regulate the activity of 
subordinate authorities in local systems of payment-for-entitlement. 
The Mughals provided a basic vocabulary for this early-modern 
state project. Mughal terminology spread widely to designate ranks 
and terms of revenue payment. That regional norms for taxation and 
entitlement were coming into vogue during the eighteenth century is 
suggested by the frequency with which ideas such as ‘illegal exactions’ 
appear in revenue disputes. This idea reflects a discourse of disputa- 
tion, resistance, and critique concerning contested rights and entitle- 
ments in the revenue ranks. The various regional systems display 
similarities that derive from pervasive Mughal influence. What the 
Company called a revenue ‘farm’ was a contract to collect taxes from a 
specific territory in return for a share of collections; and this was 
considered an irregular if not immoral arrangement almost every- 
where. It was considered to be a degraded practice because Mughal 
rules stipulated that taxes be fixed and collected not by speculators but 
rather by ranked officers at official rates. Taxes were to be collected 
within a fasli year. From a Persian term for ‘crop’ and ‘cropping year’ 
the Mughal fasli year ended with the last tax payment from the last 
winter crop (however small), in mid-April. Other important terms in 
the revenue lexicon — jagir, zamin, rai’yat, inam, watan, and miras — 
were attached to official revenue roles and personalities. The holder of 
a jagir (jagirdar) was a state official who collected revenue from a 
large territory to pay the emperor. This role defined the Mughal 
nobility and provided leadership for regional successor states. A 
zamindar paid revenue to a jagirdar and received revenue in turn from 
rai’yats. When Anglicised in the Company’s revenue discourse, 
“zamindar’ and ‘ryot’ were understood to represent not only roles in 


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the revenue system but also types of property rights in land; and they 
were translated as ‘landlord’ and ‘peasant’, respectively. 

The Company’s big agrarian debate concerned the practice of 
collecting revenue from zamindars and thus confirming their entitle- 
ments. Company officers found an alternative procedure only after 
1792, when they broke into dry territories which had been pioneered 
by warrior-peasants in the late medieval period. Here, in Kongu and 
Rayalaseema, the Company acquired territory in which Mysore 
sultans had broken into the local nexus of payment-for-entitlement 
and thinned the ranks of zamindars. Maratha and Sikh regimes did 
much the same, but in most of the Ganga basin and Bengal, along the 
coast, and in the hills, the title ‘zamindar’ had been attached to rajas, 
lineage leaders, and tribal chiefs who were deeply entrenched locally; 
or it had been acquired by financial middlemen, revenue farmers, and 
warrior entrepreneurs. Because Company officers believed that the 
Mughals had managed an imperial bureaucracy, they looked for one 
traditional, authentic ‘native’ practice which assigned specific entitle- 
ments to each peasant or tenant, but they found many instead. Over 
time, other terms for ‘farmer’ or ‘peasant’ — such as kisan (Hindi) and 
krishak (Bengali) — entered the Company’s lexicon by identification 
with rai’yat and also came to be translated as ‘tenant’ in zamindari 
areas. This set of terms has caused endless confusion ever since, 
because Company officials defined each rank in the revenue hierarchy 
as a kind of property right and failed to situate each term in its local 
context, where it had meaning in practice. British officers did not 
know that they were dealing with an agrarian world bigger and more 
varied than Europe; their analysis was geared rather to the scale of 
England or France. But, as empire builders, they were determined to 
create firm bureaucratic, legal definitions for these terms; and to this 
end they made their official definitions and projected them back into 
history to fabricate authentic native practices, based on classical 
tradition. In actual agrarian societies, a rai’yat (ryot) could be a gentry 
high-caste landowner who used servile labour to cultivate his fields or 
a landlord, or a tenant, or a self-cultivating, independent warrior- 
peasant. Similar variations in social content obtained for all the official 
revenue roles which were codified bureaucratically in the regions of 
Company administration. 

The terms inam, watan, and miras represent important features of 
early-modern systems of payment-for-entitlement. These were heredi- 


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tary rights to resources held by people of stature within local society; 
and they were bought, sold, accumulated, and otherwise deployed to 
build local (and sometimes wider) estates. Gifts of lands to temples 
and Brahmans became imam and miras, and often took the form of tax 
exceptions or privileged, low-tax, land rights. In Maratha regions, a 
watan was a bundle of rights to land, services, and tax payments, 
which defined agrarian nobility and gentry families in agrarian com- 
munities. These terms represent transactional entitlements in the 
complex of payments and obligations which formed alliances among 
elites at the local, regional, and imperial levels of authority. Company 
officials who were seeking to build an impersonal bureaucracy could 
see this kind of personal right to revenue only as a nuisance and as a 
violation of the principle that, in India, the emperor owned the land. 
But now we can see that early-modern states were composed of small 
agrarian territories whose old, local entitlements were being redefined 
as they were being incorporated into imperial hierarchies. These 
revenue systems entailed public, symbolic enactments of political 
ranking. State rituals at critical moments in the fasli year constituted 
authority, locally and regionally; and these rituals included payments 
that moved up the ranks to accumulate in capital cities. Subalterns in 
the revenue ranks paid superiors for entitlements in acts of ritual 
deference that formed power positions in agrarian territory; and some 
of the cash that travelled up the ranks came to be counted as state 
revenue. 

Historians have focused attention on the wealth that accrued to the 
Mughal nobility and to the British Raj, but, as tokens of value travelled 
up the ranks, tokens of value also travelled down: money went up, 
entitlements came down. Transactions at low levels controlled most of 
the moving elements that mingled on the farm. Payments by family 
patriarchs confirmed their status in communities. Payments by the 
headmen of villages, muhallas (urban neighbourhoods), castes, and 
sectarian and occupational groups confirmed community identity and 
leadership. Payments to temples, dynasts, Brahmans, and community 
leaders confirmed farmers’ rights to land, labour, water, and credit. In 
early-modern times, payments that came to be called ‘taxation’ or 
‘rent? (depending upon who received them) became increasingly 
complex, numerous, and necessary in farming communities. These 
transactional markers of subaltern status did not always involve 
paying cash — they could mean payments of goods and services — but, 


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from Mughal times onward, local entitlements came to rest increas- 
ingly upon payments of cash that moved out of localities to join 
streams of revenue flowing into regional capitals. The rai’yat subaltern 
paid for powers over land and over people of lesser rank. The raz’yat — 
whether he farmed the land with his own hands or not — paid revenue 
which confirmed his status as a local patriarch in a local population of 
rate payers. In the rituals of revenue, states did not suppress or even 
undermine other kinds of power; indeed, the sarkar (ruler) depended 
upon the local powers of subalterns in the revenue ranks to realise the 
revenue. Inam, miras, and watan were some of the terms that marked 
local sites of transactional power. Personalities of influence and 
honour acquired these titles to build the local revenue foundations of 
early-modern states. This form of property eventually became archaic 
in modern bureaucratic regions of agrarian administration. 


LAND 


In the early-modern period, as more wealth became revenue, a 
distinctive political economy emerged at the articulation of state 
institutions and farming communities, during a gradual shift in 
material conditions and agrarian cultures. The land itself took on new 
meanings. The value of farmland became the measure of agrarian 
territory. Land taxation increased sharply under the Mughals, again in 
the eighteenth century, and again under the Company. The British 
increase was most dramatic if not the most violent or disruptive. After 
1857, however, land revenue declined in real terms and also as a 
proportion of state revenue, though state power continued to increase. 
The Indian National Congress demanded an absolute reduction of the 
land tax, and after 1947 it fell below zero. State power still increased, 
but states now turned revenue back to farmers and state subsidies had 
surpassed land revenue by 1970. Uniquely then in the early-modern 
period, agrarian taxation funded many upward trends — in the power 
of state institutions, in the size and wealth of state elites, in urban 
populations, in monumental building, in artistic and ritual patronage, 
and in the speed and volume of communication and transportation 
(including the railway) — all of which were sustained by payments to 
the state from agriculture. At the same time, state institutions defined 
entitlements on the farm more widely and forcefully. From 1556 to 
1860, struggles to collect revenue and to enforce state power over land 


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rights produced rampant warfare; and the rising real value of land 
revenue financed Mughal imperial grandeur, rebellions against the 
Mughals, eighteenth-century wars, and British conquest. Historians 
have explained the rising revenue trend primarily as a consequence of 
state action, and military coercion, in particular, has been assigned a 
central role. Agrarian factors need more consideration. 

By 1600, the accumulation of wealth on major routes made strategic 
sites well worth fighting for. Defending, ruling, protecting, and taxing 
central places became more valuable and contentious as cities and 
towns came to include a higher proportion of liquid assets generated 
by trade, manufacturing, and revenue transactions. Taxes collected in 
town, like the food and cloth in the market, reflected the character of 
agrarian territory. Urban officials and merchants drew upon the 
wealth of the land, and what the East India Company would call ‘land 
revenue’ actually included taxes on a variety of assets. As we have 
seen, rights to land were not just powers over dirt; they formed 
membership and rank in farming communities and represented a 
family’s entitlement to community resources. Payments-for-entitle- 
ment were thus constituents of agrarian society and tools of territori- 
ality. The meaning of ‘taxation’ changed radically in the nineteenth 
century but, before 1850, the land whose tax value increased so 
sharply certainly did include its old community constituents. In retro- 
spect, it was quite sensible then for the British to think of payments 
that marked agrarian territoriality as being a state charge for rights of 
land ownership, because the people who had titles in territory made 
payments-for-entitlement to state officials. Weavers, merchants, iron- 
smiths, bankers, herders, and many others also paid taxes. But, except 
in larger urban settings, non-farmers seem to have paid for entitle- 
ments mostly through patriarchs at the apex of local society who were 
also official mediators in state revenue transactions — rajas, zamindars, 
deshmukhs, patels, village headmen, and the like. As agrarian sites 
became more valuable, the value of this role increased along with the 
price to be paid for performing it. 

In the territories in which state taxation increased most dramatically 
— and left the best records — trade and urbanism were also enhancing 
the commercial value of land by stimulating demand for agricultural 
commodities. Indigo and other dyes, animal products, ginger, tur- 
meric, tobacco, toddy and arrack, silk, grapes and melons, fruits and 
vegetables of all kinds, saffron, sugarcane, oilseeds and oils, peppers 


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and spices, chillies, opium, pulses, rice, wheat, cotton, and palm and 
other tree products head the list of commercial crops that pushed up 
land values. Commodity production depended on farm assets that 
needed protection, not only irrigation works and wells but also trees, 
terraced fields, and processing equipment such as oil presses, Persian 
wheels, looms, and forges. Manufacturing increased at the same time, 
most prominently in textiles, and it is important to keep in mind that 
all the elements in textiles were agricultural products, so that all the 
labour that cleaned, spun, wove, dyed, washed, and carried the input 
and output of the textile trades also added value to farms. Expanding 
agricultural production increased demand for manufactures, from 
cooking pots and ploughs to houses, jewellery, and armaments. Direct 
and indirect commercial investments in agriculture — in manufacturing, 
irrigation, and commodity markets — increased along with investments 
in revenue finance, as military competition for taxation drove up the 
revenue value of farms in financial markets. Much of the liquid capital 
for agricultural expansion moved through the very same transactions 
that provided revenue. Temples invested in irrigation. Warriors and 
financiers advanced loans and granted revenue reductions to increase 
the stability, intensity, and market value of production. Advances to 
farmers came increasingly from state authorities who thereby sought 
to secure their own share of the crop. (These advances were called by 
various names, such as taccavi in Madras.) Remember the Mastee 
brothers. Their tale includes the assertion that they advanced cash to 
farmers to lure them to the new village. We will see that zamindars in 
Chittagong also advanced cash to expand farming. Urbanisation 
circulated capital from trade and manufacturing through various 
circuits of investment in farming. Investing in irrigation paid solid 
dividends, whatever the source of the capital, and we can see from 
medieval inscriptions and nineteenth-century British sources alike that 
the building and repairing of irrigation tanks relied on capital raised in 
a host of ways, including the use of temple funds. As the money 
supply increased after 1600, it pushed up the cash value of farm assets 
and taxes at the same time in communities endowed with commercial 
connections, commodity crops, irrigation, and investors. Land in these 
places became well worth protecting and paying to keep in the family. 
Coercion and violence increased land revenue, but not only for state 
officials. Mughals fought for revenue, tax collectors fought for it, and 
the East India Company fought for it; but, as more people paid more 


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for land, more people also fought back to resist claims from above and 
to expand local claims. Physical fighting distinguished the etiquette of 
early-modern payments-for-entitlement. Revenue transactions com- 
bined negotiation, ritual, status marking, gambling, entrepreneurship, 
and brute struggles. Fighting and paying for land became inescapable 
as agrarian space filled up, and subaltern resistance became more 
common as standing to fight and paying for rights became unavoid- 
able. The option of flight into the forest became less and less attractive 
as open land for new settlement disappeared. By 1850, Bhisma’s old 
adage had become archaic, because even wooded lands were no longer 
open space for escape and colonisation: states taxed them and commu- 
nities controlled them. Creating such domains of local control 
involved a lot of fighting and paying for entitlements, as the vast, open 
frontiers of agrarian expansion which had characterised the medieval 
period closed down. Early-modern imperialism enabled agrarian com- 
munities to redefine local territoriality. Wide-spreading transactional 
hierarchies marked empires in which every level in the ranks took 
payments from below and all the ranks spread out to control more and 
more land. The many-layered cake of imperial revenue increased the 
total value of state income, funnelled more wealth to the higher levels, 
and also expanded the agrarian base. Land values rose with more 
competition. State officials added force to the extension of cultivation 
and to the appropriation of open land by local subordinates. Agricul- 
tural communities defined territory by enclosing the land, carving it 
up, fighting, and paying. Empty land vanished as landscapes filled up 
completely with territories of entitlement. Agricultural land came to 
include all the land for which communities made claims with taxes, 
rituals, battles, and lore. 

Using A’in-i-Akbari statistics, Shireen Moosvi estimates that the 
gross cropped area in the Mughal heartland in the northern basins and 
western plains covered 61 per cent of the total land area that would be 
covered with farms in 1910.'° This temporal comparison is not exact 
because Mughal data — like all such data before 1870 — do not measure 
cropped area but rather land in the revenue category of ‘cropped land’. 
Early-modern assessments measure not cultivation, crops, or yields, 
but rather a kind of land value in systems of payment-for-entitlement. 


15 Shireen Moosvi, The Economy of the Mughal Empire c.1595: A Statistical Study, Delhi, 
1987, pp. 39-73. 


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With this in mind, it is still useful to note that Moosvi’s ratios 
comparing figures for 1595 and 1910 run from an average of 85 per 
cent for Agra, Bet Jalandhar, Baroda, and Surat, to 29 per cent in 
Champaner and Rohilkhand, and down to 8 per cent in Sindh Sagar, 
indicating that much more of the land was being farmed in politically 
central, commercially well-connected parts of the Mughal domain, and 
that relatively Jess subsequent expansion of farmland was possible in 
core Mughal areas. Such core areas, pulsing with trade and manufac- 
turing, provided most Mughal revenues. James R. Hagen argues that, 
in the lowlands and adjacent hills of the Gangetic basin and Bengal, 
roughly 30 per cent of the total area was occupied by farms in 1600. 
He estimates that this figure increased to 50 per cent in 1700, remained 
at sO per cent in 1800, and rose to 65 per cent in I9I0 and to 7O per 
cent in 1980. These estimates suggest that farm acreage expanded over 
40 per cent of the total land area between 1600 and 1980, with half the 
increase occurring by 1700, another huge increase in the nineteenth 
century, and very little in the twentieth century.'° Much more expan- 
sion was possible after 1600 in naturally well-endowed areas that were 
less developed in Akbar’s time. Outside Bet Jalandhar, for instance, the 
Punjab lowlands were barely cultivated in 1600, and in 1800 most land 
south of the hills remained open for grazing. Between 1850 and 1939, 
the government built 20,886 miles of canals in Punjab, and by 1945 
canals irrigated 15,688,000 acres, much of it for more than one crop 
each year. Regional disparities in the pace and timing of agricultural 
expansion typify agrarian history and are critical for an accurate 
understanding of the agrarian content of modernity. As Punjab was 
booming, some old areas of agricultural prosperity were hitting a 
resource limit. 

In 1595, outside Mughal territory, higher proportions of farmland 
to total arable would certainly have pertained in old core areas of 
riverine cultivation along the coast and in the Ganga basin. Moosvi’s 
figures for Baroda and Surat probably reflect conditions in many parts 
of the coastal plains, especially along riverbeds and in the deltas, 
except in Bengal. As Hagen’s estimate suggests, the overall increase in 
farmland would have been smaller in the eighteenth century, during 
wars, plagues, and famines that were particularly bad in the later 


16 James R. Hagen, ‘Gangetic Fields: An Approach to Agrarian History Through 
Agriculture and the Natural Environment, 1600-1970’, Paper delivered at the annual 
meeting of the Association for Asian Studies, 1988. 


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decades. Bengal took decades to recover from the 1770 famine. W. W. 
Hunter reported that 35 per cent of the total population and 50 per 
cent of the farmers died in that year, and that depopulation continued 
in later years amidst zamindar feuds to attract tenants to their estates. 
Decades of strong expansion seem to have preceded the famine, 
however, as indicated by a surge in temple building after 1730 by 
zamindars and businessmen.!’ In the Krishna—Godavari and Kaveri 
deltas, late-eighteenth-century wars broke irrigation works, deprived 
tanks of repairs, and displaced communities, which took a lot of land 
out of cultivation; and all along the eastern coast the expansion of rice 
farming in the decades 1800-1850 involved the reclamation of old 
fields. In 1850, wide areas open for new cultivation did remain in 
Bangladesh, Assam, Punjab, Haryana, Gujarat, Rajasthan, Sindh, and 
the western Ganga basin. New large-scale irrigation then produced 
new farmland in the Indo-Gangetic plains and in the deltas of the 
Kaveri, Krishna, and Godavari rivers. But, in territories that were 
heavily farmed in 1850, there was very little expansion thereafter, 
although even this incremental change would have further displaced 
hill peoples and forest ecologies in the central mountains, the high 
mountains, and the Western Ghats. 

A rough summary of the overall trend begins with the impression 
that less than half of all the farmland in 1900 had been farmed in 1600. 
Though the oldest fields were ancient, most of the land being farmed 
in 1600 had come into cultivation during eleven centuries after 500. 
Over half of the farmland in 1910 was thus created during just three 
centuries after 1600. This implies a substantial increase in the pace of 
new cultivation. In 1800, dry and upland tropical areas were still 
sparsely farmed and held substantial populations of pastoralists and 
shifting cultivators. In the nineteenth century, dramatic increases 
occurred in dry cultivation, irrigation building, and forest clearance; 
and modes of resource scarcity and competition came into being 
which have continued to the present day. After 1850, agrarian unrest 
increased with competition over land, water, and rights amidst the 
final enclosure of farming frontiers. After 1880, ecological change and 
human dislocation caused by the expansion of farming concentrated in 
the higher altitudes and in the dry western plains. From 1880 to 1980, 


'7 Hiteshranjan Sanyal, ‘Social Aspects of Temple Building in Bengal: 1600 to 1900 ap’, 


Man in India, 48, 1968, 201-24. 


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the highest rates of increase in the ratio of total farmland to total land 
area appear in Tripura (9.03), Sikkim (6.98), Nagaland (4.05), Assam 
(3.33), Rajasthan (3.26), Mizoram (2.88), Arunachal Pradesh (2.71), 
and Orissa (2.06). Low figures running from 1.03 to 1.22 appear in 
Tamil Nadu, West Bengal, Uttar Pradesh, Maharashtra, and Kerala.'® 
After 1880, agricultural expansion was very substantial (with new 
irrigation) in dry regions of Rajasthan, Haryana, Punjab, Gujarat, 
Karnataka, northern Sri Lanka, and Sindh, and (with forest clearance) 
in all tropical uplands, including Orissa and Madhya Pradesh. But the 
most dramatic change in modern times has been on the farthest 
frontiers of medieval and early-modern agrarian territories, in the 
tropical high mountains and Assam. The colonisation and clearing of 
forests in these areas by people and states moving up from the 
lowlands accelerated under the Mughals and again under the British. 
Rapid acceleration began with the expansion of the railway, but it 
peaked only after 1950. The percentage of land under cultivation in 
the high mountains remains low even today, so that agricultural 
expansion at high altitude still has a long way to go. But the rapid 
proportional increase of farm acreage in the uplands, along with forest 
cutting for other purposes, helps to explain the rapid increase in 
conflict over mountain land in the twentieth century. A dramatic 
reduction of the high forest cover has produced a sense of crisis over 
the sustainability of mountain ecologies. 

Demography and technology do not account for the upward pace 
of agricultural expansion after 1600. Population increase may have 
moved in harmony with trends in total farm output, but farm acreage 
moved ahead more rapidly than population. Rates of population 
growth rose after 1800 but jumped to their current pace only in the 
1920s. Technologies did change in the late nineteenth century, when 
large irrigation works, railways, and road building opened up new 
areas to cultivation. But irrigation building moved along throughout 
the medieval and early-modern period, and irrigation tank and well 
digging led the expansion of farming in the peninsula after 1500, as 
recounted in the story of the Mastee brothers. Few new tanks were 


18 This paragraph is based on calculations from district data compiled by John F. Richards 
and his colleagues for the period 1880-1980. See J. F. Richards and E. P. Flint (R. C. 
Daniels, ed.), Historic Land Use and Carbon Estimates for South and Southeast Asia, 
1880-1980, Carbon Dioxide Information Analysis Center, Oak Ridge National Laboratory, 
Experimental Sciences Division, Publication No. 4174. Data are available on the internet. 


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built after 1800, and a good proportion of the new irrigation in the 
nineteenth century put new water into old canals. Wells continued to 
be dug at a steady pace and remained the major source of new 
irrigation in dry regions, right down to the present day. Like 
demography, technological change became a driving force in agricul- 
tural expansion only at the end; and new kinds of irrigation, seeds, and 
chemicals have been most important in productivity increases per acre 
since 1950. The long expansion after 1600 came primarily from the 
transformation of agrarian territoriality. States fought to enclose 
territory to extract more wealth as revenue; in this effort, innovations 
in military technology did affect agricultural trends. At the same time, 
local farming communities enclosed land around their settlements to 
secure entitlements in the face of commercial opportunities, state 
demands, competition from other communities, and declining land 
availability. In the local context, demography would have had an 
influence on the rate of expansion. Agrarian struggles of the early- 
modern period were not so much about revenue as about territory. 
They brought all the farming landscapes under the control of states 
and local communities during centuries that span Mughal and 
Company rule. 

A modern state environment for agrarian history thus began to 
emerge from the sixteenth century onward. At the highest level, an 
imperial state extended its authority over a vast terrain that was 
defined by a network of urban centres, inter-city routes, and state 
elites. At a second level, elites in regional capitals and local men of 
substance formed networks of alliance within regional state institu- 
tions. Elites at these two levels confront one another continuously. 
Today, they articulate regional politics and nationality. In the seven- 
teenth century, Mughals brought the Punjab and Deccan into the 
imperial fold and Sikh and Maratha warriors defined regional move- 
ments, representing alliances among warrior-farmers in dispersed 
territories of conquest colonisation. Here and elsewhere, early- 
modern farming communities fought to control land and labour in the 
framework of regional networks and alliances, and agrarian regions 
emerged in territories defined by dominant social powers in agricul- 
ture. The cultural setting of farming also became more regionally 
defined by the homogenising power of early-modern states. 

Violence punctuated the early-modern evolution of agrarian 
regions. State violence helped to advance agricultural expansion, as 


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when Mughals armies cleared jungles and subdued hill tribes. All 
agrarian states conquered nomads and pastoralists, hastening their 
integration into the urban economy and agricultural communities. 
With Rajput, Mughal, Maratha, Sikh, and Company conquest, the 
sedentarisation of hunting, herding, and tribal populations continued, 
along with the expansion of farming into forests. In the central 
mountains, for instance, from the rim of the northern basins to the 
Satpuras and Orissa, tribal groups in the uplands were increasingly 
brought into state systems that included lowland peasant farmers in 
caste societies. Dominant groups extended idioms of caste and applied 
institutions of ranked entitlements to create official community leaders 
and to form transactional hierarchies that would connect ethnically 
diverse local communities in regional revenue systems. New agrarian 
territories were thus formed of diverse, endogamous, ethnic groups, 
living and working separately in their own ecological settings, 
spreading across the hills and valleys. Formerly independent Bhils, 
Gonds, and others were subsumed within an overarching military 
power structure erected by Marathas and expanded by the British. 
Formerly independent rulers of the hills entered agrarian states and 
farming communities. Violence occurred at many moments in such 
transformations of social identity and power. Efforts to enclose 
territory triggered militant migrations that made it more difficult to 
enclose territory without violence. The rapid expansion of agriculture 
and state power in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries produced 
new agrarian territories and changed the composition of many more, 
provoking violence along the way. Mobility increased to such an 
extent that state elites sometimes coerced workers and farmers to keep 
up the cultivation. Migrants came from south-west and central Asia 
into Kashmir, the northern basins, and Bengal, where they pushed 
farming into the jungles and the hills. Warriors and farmers cleared 
Rohilkhand, Gorakhpur, Gaya, and other forested upland tracts along 
the Ganga basin. They expanded into the high mountains and Nepal; 
while in Nepal, states pushed from Kathmandu westward, creating a 
new region of farming and of military conflict at high altitude. 
Colonists moved across Myanmar and into the Brahmaputra basin. 
Cooch Behar became a borderland between Ahoms up-river and new 
settlers from the west and south; farmers high in the adjacent 
mountains kept their autonomy. Assam has been a zone of conflict 
among agrarian groups ever since. Jat lineages conquered and settled 


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across Punjab. Bhojpuri peasant soldiers fought in armies across the 
northern plains and the Deccan. Lodis migrated from the north into 
the Narmada valley. Farming expanded with conquests in Khandesh, 
Berar, the upper Godavari basin, Telangana, and the realms of Golk- 
onda and Hyderabad. The upper Kaveri basin became a rich agricul- 
tural territory under the Udaiyar Rajas, Hyder Ali, and Tipu Sultan. 
The southern band of dry lands of Rayalaseema running across the 
peninsula from Bijapur to Chandragiri seems to have witnessed an 
exceptionally rapid growth of tank-fed millet and cotton farming 
under the rule of Bijapur sultans and the later Nayakas. 

Considerable violence accompanied the creation of new inter- 
mediary positions in the ranks of state institutional authority. Jagirdars 
had to secure their own powers to collect revenue, as did zamindars 
and lesser authorities. The cash value of a territory would increase 
when subordinate and intermediary positions in the revenue ranks 
were filled by wealthy, well-connected people who could collect and 
transmit revenue effectively. These intermediary positions became 
more valuable as territories developed economically; and such devel- 
opment also stimulated and financed defections and rebellions. Sub- 
ordinates would fight to deepen their control over local resources to 
support a drive for political independence, as best exemplified by 
Murshid Quli Khan, who pressed heavily on his zamindars between 
his appointment as Subahdar of Bengal in 1705 and his death in 1727. 
Local and regional struggles for independence from higher authorities 
were at the same time struggles for territorial control at lower levels. 
This basic feature of modern nationalism can be seen in the regional 
states of the eighteenth century. If successful, strategic manoeuvres in 
the regions of imperial states produced an independent ruler whose 
capital city grew in wealth and status, as did that of Murshid Quli 
Khan. His regime fostered “a sharp rise in the number of temples built 
by businessmen . . . [who] came to constitute 32 per cent of the total 
number of temples, while the contribution of the zemindars fell from 
87 to 60 per cent’.'? This chain of events was repeated many times in 
the eighteenth century. Subaltern insurgency and secessionist struggles 
— though anathema to empire — could actually improve local agrarian 
conditions and work to the benefit of local elites, despite the cost of 
war. Imperial fragmentation thus did not contradict economic growth 


19 Sanyal, ‘Social Aspects of Temple Building’, p. 207. 


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in the eighteenth century any more than it did in the twentieth 
century. 

Battles for autonomy and supremacy waged by sultans, jagirdars, 
zamindars, rajas, nawabs (Mughal governors), and the English East 
India Company could engage peasant and warrior allies by contri- 
buting force to local struggles for control over the land around 
farming villages. Regional struggles for autonomy and imperial strug- 
gles for supremacy both needed local allies in agricultural communities 
and added muscle to local fights for village land. In Mysore, Mahar- 
ashtra, Malwa, Punjab, Rajasthan, Kashmir, and the central mountains, 
Mughal successor states arose from alliances between former imperial 
nobility and rising warrior-peasant elites who exercised a powerful 
hold over state revenues locally. In the wet lowlands, along the coast 
from Gujarat to Bengal, and in Bihar, the eighteenth-century imperial 
nobility allied instead with medieval gentry, rajas and merchant 
financiers who capitalised their position in the ranks within expanding 
networks of trade, revenue, and manufacturing. In the 1740s, the 
Company’s pursuit of agrarian wealth began along the coast around 
Calcutta and Madras, where it confronted a confusing set of claims to 
revenue and proprietary authority that derived from medieval land 
grants, Mughal authorities, and regional states. In this context, the 
official status and wealth of the entrepreneurial revenue intermediary 
(the revenue farmer), who came equipped with his own military 
power, rose with his ability to deliver the revenue, by whatever means 
necessary. Company sarkar arose in this competitive climate of 
agrarian struggles and revenue finance. 


CULTURE 


In the evidence from early-modern centuries, we can see substantial 
shifts in the discourse of agrarian identity and territoriality. As more 
local wealth became state revenue, local leaders entered the ranks of 
empire, and farming communities became institutions of entitlement 
within regional systems of imperial power. New positions at the low 
end of the revenue ranks defined power over property that was 
becoming more commercially valuable under the twin disciplines of 
market exchange and state authority. Terminologies indicate the 
change in the nature of territoriality. The term zamindar came to have 
widespread utility for local leaders and for revenue intermediaries of 


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various kinds, and, in contrast to the term raja, it denoted a person 
whose authority depended upon payments-for-entitlement. But a raja 
also had to pay for his independence and this status also came to be 
fixed as a rank within a region of state authority rather than being a 
claim within medieval ritual networks of samantas and maha-adi- 
rajas. At lower levels, similar changes occurred. In medieval Tamil 
parlance, kaniyatchi denoted a village sharehold, most basically, in 
land (Rani); and its holder, a kaniyatchikarar, was a patriarch among 
the local gentry. This inscriptional term was displaced in eighteenth- 
century documents by zamindar and then by another Persian term to 
denote hereditary rights — mirasidar — before being displaced after 
1800 by ‘ryot’, taken from the Mughal lexicon to denote an individual 
tax-paying property owner who had a receipt for revenue payments 
that constitutes an official title to land, a pattah. These displacements 
indicate a shift from early-medieval forms of collective community 
entitlements, to a ranking system of entitlement and inheritance under 
the Mughals, and to a private property system under the Company. 
Through all these displacements, the Brahman and Vellala gentry 
retained control in farming communities as they climbed the official 
ranks, like the Medai Delavoy Mudaliar, who became the Nayaka 
governor in Tirunelveli, and expanded their commercial horizons, like 
Ananda Ranga Pillai, who became Dupleix’s dubash (bilingual agent) 
at Pondichery. 

Articulations of social power and state authority created regions of 
community. In Bundelkhand, senior Rajput lineage leaders became 
rajas under the Mughals as lesser lineage brethren (thakurs) formed 
the regional ranks of zamindars. Each lineage ruled over a local 
community of farmers in subordinate castes of Lodis, Kurmis, 
Kachhis, Ahirs, and Gujars. Among these latter groups, Kurmis seem 
to have been most prosperous in the nineteenth century, and they 
included families with zamindari entitlements; but, at the same time, 
some Ahir families formed special family ties with Rajputs and 
consequently enjoyed special patronage. In this complex of ranked 
communities, individual villages were composed of several settlement 
clusters linked across Bundelkhand by inter-marriage, land owning, 
and labour movements. A region of community sentiment thus 
formed as Bundela Rajputs colonised from west to east. In the process, 
Thakur power increased in the older regions of colonisation; so that 
during the 1857 rebellion even the most prestigious Rajputs lineages in 


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the east had little influence on events in the western districts adjacent 
to Malwa.”° 

In Bengal, Francis Buchanan witnessed one phase in the regional 
formation of Chittagong. It began with Mughal conquest, in 1666, 
when Mughal troops cut jungles to promote farming, and one sanad 
(grant) gave a single grantee 166.4 acres of jungle to be cultivated for 
the support of a mosque, ordering that he ‘must assiduously pray for 
the survival of the powerful state’. By 1780, Mughal authorities had 
made 288 grants of tax-free land in the Chittagong region to support 
mosques and shrines, in the same vein as temple grants in medieval 
inscriptions. The titles of the men who were endowed with such 
grants indicate that 28 per cent (chaudhuris, ta’alluqdars, and khans) 
were men of substance in Chittagong when they received the grants; 
other endowments went to religious leaders and holy men, the largest 
category being shaikh (31 per cent). These recipients were land 
clearance entrepreneurs. They contracted with zamindars to finance 
cultivation; and zamindars then advanced funds to peasant farmers, 
receiving crops and labour in return. Here we see the beginnings of 
the intricately ranked entitlements to the land that typify the agrarian 
frontiers of Bengal. By 1798, regional agrarian society in Chittagong 
had three distinctive types of community.*! Elite zamindars, mostly 
Hindus, lived in the city, along with a large population of urban port 
workers and merchants. In the flatlands, up to the base of the hills, rice 
paddy fields were cut from jungle, dotted with mosques and shrines, 
and worked by Muslim peasants under Muslim men of substance who 
descended from the original contractors. Non-Muslim jhum cultiva- 
tors had their own communities in the hills, in the path of lowland 
expansion. Today, descendants of these people living in the Chitta- 
gong Hill Tracts are embroiled in conflict with the government of 
Bangladesh from a position that is strictly defined as culturally distinct 
from the national community of Bengalis. 

In Maratha and Sikh territories, militant agrarian patriarchs fought 
to enhance their local claims and to enclose open space in the lowlands 
and adjacent mountain valleys. At the same time, urban elites accumu- 
lated assets in centres of state power and long-distance trade. Status 
ranks came to be pegged to the titles that formed regional alliances 


20 Tapti Roy, The Politics of a Popular Uprising: Bundelkhand in 1857, New Delhi, 1994, 


PP: 199-233. 
21 Eaton, The Rise of Islam, pp. 243-51. 


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among locally dominant warrior-farmers. Beginning with Shivaji, 
warrior-peasant alliances displaced Mughal imperial elites but used 
Mughal-derived ranks to organise competition and collaboration. 
Conflicting demands on local land and revenues generated minute 
record-keeping and adjudication that elevated the status of Brahmans 
within the Maratha state. Dominant warrior-peasants became the local 
protectors of a Maharashtra-dharma that blessed dominant caste 
control in villages under the Maratha military. In Punjab, Sikh 
religious law enshrined the rule of mis/s (military bands) in local 
domains of Jat control. In both regions, an increasing proportion of 
entitlements were being held by the allies and superiors of the village 
patriarchs, in towns where forts, godowns, bankers, cantonments, 
scholars, and courts defined regional dominions. Villages became sites 
of agrarian expansion, nested within regions of military alliance; 
religion and language became tokens of regional identity. In these 
territories, we find the most extensive development of village-level 
record-keeping and administrative institutions. Maratha records were 
adapted locally all across the dry interior from Pune to Rayalaseema to 
Mysore and Coimbatore, in other areas of warrior-peasant colonisa- 
tion. 

In Bundelkhand, Chittagong, Punjab, Maharashtra, and elsewhere, 
we can see regional ethnicities forming inside early-modern territori- 
ality. Jat, Sikh, Maratha, Muslim, Bengali, Rajput, Thakur, Ahir, 
Ahom, and other identities formed within ideologies of alliance; and 
they became more territorialised within the ranks of early-modern 
states, as farmers, warriors, merchants, and revenue intermediaries 
allied within networks of urban influence to form agrarian regions of 
community sentiment. In some cases, a dominant ethnic stratum 
emerged above ethnically diverse localities, such as the Bundela 
Rajputs. Hindu zamindars spread across Muslim peasant villages in 
eastern Bengal. In the old Gupta homeland, Brahmans, Bhumihars, 
Rajputs, Kayasthas, and Baniyas comprised a powerful zamindar class, 
while the more substantial cultivators were Ahirs, Kurmis, and Koeris, 
who in turn employed lower-caste groups. Elsewhere, dominant caste 
groups formed ethnic mini-polities. Rajputisation among tribal groups 
produced ethnic kingdoms in the central mountains. Kallars, Nayakas, 
and Maravas formed compact territories of early-modern kingship, 
dominated by their lineages and clans in the Tamil country. Early- 
modern states confirmed and enhanced the power of local ethnic 


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configurations, encouraging their control of territory for the expan- 
sion of farming and state revenue. The ethnicity of power thus 
informed state discourse and strategy. Abu-l Fasl listed zamindars by 
ethnicity, showing that the parganas of Delhi subah were divided 
territorially among Brahmans, Tyagis (cultivating Brahmans), Rajputs, 
Jats, Gujars, Ahirs, and Muslims. The British continued this practice, 
as indicated by Francis Buchanan’s stress upon the religious affiliation 
of the groups in Chittagong. Localities became politically identified 
with dominant groups at the base of early-modern states. 

Patterns of agrarian culture were formed in regions of state 
authority. Folklore surrounding dominant groups like the Rajputs 
inscribed their supremacy on the land. Identities became entrenched in 
regions of community. In common parlance, cultivating groups would 
often assert that only they know how to farm the soil of their home 
territory correctly, or how to raise a symbolic crop such as rice, millet, 
or cotton properly. Social identity, expertise, and control were packed 
into territoriality; and regions of popular culture were formed by the 
circulation and experience of myth and memory in drama, poetry, and 
song. Popular sayings collected in Tamil and Telugu at the end of the 
nineteenth century often assert that only the dominant farming castes 
know how to farm properly and that both Brahmans and low castes 
make bad farmers. Farming is in the blood, as Vellala farmers reported 
to the officials who were collecting popular ideas about farming. The 
power to farm (velanmai) is in farmers’ nature (kunam). In this view, 
the land does not so much belong to its owner as constitute a farmer’s 
being and community. Composite formations of agricultural knowl- 
edge, identity, ritual, honour, and authority composed ethnic terri- 
tories that became ecological, ideological, emotional, poetic, and 
sacred, all at once. Local dominance by politically well-connected 
families and castes defined the cultural identity of land. This is another 
precursor of modern nationality. 

As groups of various kinds preferred, gravitated to, and concen- 
trated in specific types of location, some groups — such as jhum 
cultivators in the tropical highlands and pastoral nomads in the arid 
plains - were also pushed into circumscribed territories. Exclusion, 
marginality, dependency, and poverty thus attached to people and 
places that were identified with each other. Places with specific natural 
qualities became associated with specialist inhabitants. Forest dwellers, 
fisher folk, even rice and wheat farmers were attached physically and 


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culturally to natural settings, with their own cuisine, rituals, folklore, 
and aesthetics. Near Kanya Kumari, a group called Shanars specialised 
in palmyra tree cultivation and settled in sandy tracts that were not 
good for farming but were excellent for growing palmyras. In 
Bundelkhand, the Ahirs lived in villages along rivers and in ravines 
where forests gave them access to farm and grazing land. A geogra- 
phical concentration of groups that specialise in specific types of work 
using specialised skills and knowledge became typical in many local- 
ities and regions. Such spatial concentration of groups on the land 
resulted not only from group preferences but also from battles that 
partitioned the landscape to form social and territorial boundaries at 
the same time. The Shanars and Ahirs were not allowed to own the 
best agricultural land, which was controlled by Thakurs and Vellalas, 
whose superiority was also expressed in the richness of their farms. 
Low-caste and tribal farmers were pushed to ecological margins by 
more powerful groups, and violence quite often marked borderlands 
between forest and farm. Battles over territory marked the moving 
frontier of cultivation. Forms of territoriality that Ranajit Guha sees in 
peasant insurgencies took shape at this borderland where fighting 
farmers fought for territories of collective identity. 

Urban centres had their own kind of people, although urbanism did 
not always include sharp distinctions between city and country. Abu-| 
Fasl did not see Mughal territory as being clearly divided among 
villages, towns, and cities — and neither did early East India Company 
officials — because the stature of a place depended on who lived there, 
and major sites of revenue collection, state authority, and economic 
importance had a decidedly rural appearance. As a result, it is difficult 
to measure exactly how urban - or rural — South Asia really was. 
Indeed, this dichotomy is actually misleading. The British practice of 
dubbing virtually any site outside a capital city a ‘village’ or at best a 
‘town’ obscures the composition of agrarian landscapes, as does the 
modern habit of associating ruralism with illiteracy and subsistence 
farming, in contrast to elite, industrial, cosmopolitan cities. Manufac- 
turing and commercial assets, educated elites, and political power 
often concentrated in settings that British observers called ‘rural’ and 
labelled ‘villages’. Perhaps the absence of fortifications and monu- 
mental architecture led Company officials to assume that a place was 
rural. Monumental, fortified centres marked the western plains, 
Gujarat, the Mughal heartland, and the peninsular interior; and they 


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were common among ports along the coast, but not so much in other 
regions. Urbanism often blended aspects of city and country. Manu- 
facturing and commercial activities were usually spread out among a 
number of nearby residential settlements. Production was most often 
organised in clusters of centres at walking distance from one another, 
rather than being stuffed into fortifications and city walls. Economic 
specialisation was organised largely within endogamous identity 
groups (defined by jati, sect, and ethnicity), each living in their own 
separate neighbourhood, so that complex economic interdependence — 
such as in the textile industry - involved extensive commercial 
interactions among many settlements, which clustered together along 
routes of trade. In 1805, in Rayalaseema, one of the driest and by its 
appearance most ‘rural’ of regions, about a third of the population was 
engaged in mercantile, manufacturing, transportation, and related 
occupations. State revenue was routinely collected in cash, and most 
farming households depended on loans and non-agricultural income 
from various sources. Dozens of places have such a predominance of 
non-agricultural occupations that they look distinctively ‘urban’. In all 
the regions that produced cotton cloth for the overseas trade — Punjab, 
Gujarat, Bengal, and the south-eastern plains, including Rayalaseema — 
exports emerged from a widespread manufacturing network in which 
cotton farming, cleaning, spinning, weaving, bleaching, dyeing, 
packing, and shipping were each typically done in different places 
where families could readily move among various activities, in and out 
of agriculture, in regular adaptations to seasons of rain, war, and price 
fluctuations. These were among the great industrial regions of the 
early-modern world, and they produced the bulk of cotton cloth in 
world markets in 1750. 

Urbanism was spread out, dispersed, and embedded in agriculture. 
Bulls could plough the land and pull carts when the land was dry and 
hard. Seasonal migrations to work, trade, and fight were very 
common, so the physical and occupational mobility that we identify 
with urbanism in modern times typified large parts of the early- 
modern countryside. Concentrations of urban activity clustered along 
river routes and at river crossings, but then they also spread out over 
adjacent land. An urban location in the central place hierarchy of an 
early-modern region was defined not so much by its physical appear- 
ance as by the rank of the officials in it and by the character of the 
elites who gave it distinction. A state revenue headquarters could 


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include a large population that was spread among many settlements, 
and small centres could become important sites of revenue collection. 
Central sites such as temples, shrines, and monasteries were often set 
apart and situated among the fields that supported them. Many 
important places had a rustic appearance. 

Detailed data from the Tamil country show that, in 1770, the great 
urban centre of Kanchipuram was actually a constellation of settle- 
ments, temples, and monasteries, supported by hundreds of land 
grants spread all over the southern coastal plains. The urbanism of 
Kanchipuram came from its symbolic and economic centrality, not 
from its enclosure of a large population within a dense city space. 
Near Kanya Kumari, along the Tambraparni river, many sites of 
revenue collection that the Company called ‘villages’ in a census of 
1823 had small populations but substantial concentrations of manufac- 
turing, processing, and commercial activity as well as very high 
population densities. After all, when a small place became sufficiently 
wealthy, its leaders would want to make it a separate revenue jurisdic- 
tion — to declare their local independence — so that small territorial 
units of social power proliferated in fertile lands and in booming 
commercial and manufacturing regions. Ambasamudram, a centre on 
the Tambraparni river, had sixteen subordinate villages in its jurisdic- 
tion in 1477 but only three in 1823, by which time it had a population 
of only 3,952, because in the interim it had spawned more and more 
independent sites of local political authority. Some of the smallest 
1823 census sites in Tirunelveli had high concentrations of looms, mat 
frames, gunny frames, toddy shops, arrack shops, and other commer- 
cial assets, in addition to artisan and merchant castes. The urban centre 
of the Tirunelveli region consisted of three close-by urban centres, 
each with its own identity, a temple town (Tirunelveli), a fortress town 
(Palayamkottai), and manufacturing centre (Melapalayan). These three 
centres were not administered together until 1993. This sprawling 
composite urban site was broken up in all the census operations before 
1991 and thus it was empirically hidden as an urban feature of the 
landscape. This Tirunelveli urban complex included about 25 per cent 
of the population in the central river valley in 1823, but was buried 
under the quaint category of ‘mofussil town’. 

Agrarian South Asia seems not to have been nearly as rural as 
British observers led us to believe; and early-modern urbanity was 
more rural than we might imagine. The economic simplicity of the 


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pre-modern countryside is largely a fiction of modern urbanites. We 
get a more accurate picture if we imagine many localities with urban 
economic, social, and cultural characteristics strung together by net- 
works of mobility to form urban agglomerations of various sizes. 
Urbanism lay inside agriculture rather than being set apart and its 
internal transport system moved at a walk or a boat’s pace. It did not 
confine labour in tightly bounded city spaces, separating workers 
from everyday farming activities. It relied on the proximity of non- 
agricultural workers to local supplies of food and raw materials. Its 
manufacturing was closely connected with agriculture, not only 
economically by exchange relations, but spatially by locational deci- 
sions that formed localised proximity among specialised producers, 
resources, and markets. Then as now, the movement of labour among 
economic activities animated urbanism. But then, the locational advan- 
tages of specific urban sites were formed socially by residential 
decisions among groups who partitioned the landscape into what we 
can call ethnic territories, each composed of specific combinations of 
social groups. The availability of open land for new settlements and 
the mobility of the population discouraged concentrations of capital 
and labour inside city walls, so that efforts to attract and hold labour 
and capital in particular places were very prominent political activities; 
the accumulating attractions of a place constituted its urbanity. 
Regions of urbanism, ethnicity, empire, literature, and territoriality 
made the land look very different in 1800 than it had looked in 1200. 
We have some evidence to suggest the quality of the change in the way 
that people thought about the land; for example, the history of the 
Tamil term for ‘forest? — kadu — indicates something about cultural 
change in agrarian societies in the peninsula. In Old Tamil poetry, 
composed around the turn of the Common Era, kadu meant ‘burning 
ground’, and the land was so full of forest that the poets needed many 
words to capture its meanings. Three of their five poetic milieus were 
forest: kurinji was tropical mountain forest; mullai was deciduous 
woods along hillsides, where animals threaten travellers; and palai was 
dry flatlands, thick with prickly scrub and robbers (that is, hunter- 
pastoralists). Only one milieu had comfortable domesticity: the irri- 
gated villages (marutam), watery lowlands like those along the Tam- 
braparni or in the Kaveri delta. By early-medieval times, the Tamil 
landscape had been simplified textually into a stark dichotomy 
between nadu and kadu, where kadu meant the untamed, rugged, 


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forest without cultivation or civility, while nadu denoted agrarian 
territory, which dotted the coast. A series of cultural identifications 
were thus established. The kadu was wild, inhabited by unruly folk 
who needed to be brought into the orbit of royal authority. The nadu 
was civilised, controlled by Brahmans and Vellalas; it had trading 
towns, irrigation, temples, gods, and ceremonial order. The agricul- 
tural borders of wet lands, dry tracts, or small settlements (in the dry 
tract) could also be referred to as kadu, which term became a part of 
many place names to indicate original settlement in the forest. Kings 
and chiefs sought to incorporate the land and people of the kadu into 
their domains. Wars of conquest and incorporation brought labourers 
from the kadu into the ambit of the nadu, people of the kadu being 
hunters, pastoralists, and long-fallow farmers. Many medieval Tamil 
chiefdoms depended on pastoral people, whose names and settlements 
populate the inscriptions. But such political settings and their ecologies 
were wiped out by agricultural expansion, causing striking disconti- 
nuities between the composition of medieval and early-modern terri- 
tory. By 1700, the political power of pastoralists had diminished to 
nothing. By 1800, Tamil language formulations of agricultural knowl- 
edge differed both from their medieval antecedents and from their 
Malayali, Telugu, Kannada, and Marathi contemporaries, not only 
because of linguistic change, but also because Tamil farmers ignored 
the tropics to the west, destroyed pastoralism which survived in the 
northern peninsula, and were bent on destroying the long-fallow dry 
regime that still survived on the Tamil plain and dominated much of 
the Tamil uplands. Linguistic cultures made sense of particular types 
of agrarian space. 

After 1300, probably after 1500, kadu took on the meaning of ‘dry 
land’, whether cultivated, fallow, or waste, and by 1800 this meaning 
was prominent. Dry farming — using strong bulls to plough deeply 
and to lift deep well water to nourish garden crops — increased the 
relative value of dryland. In addition, many of the best dry land 
farmers in the Tamil country were immigrant Telugus, allied with 
Nayakas from Vijayanagar, who typified the political landscape of the 
eastern coast after 1500, ruling the country from their rustic forts. 
Nadu lost its specific territorial meaning to become merely a term for 
‘country’, like desh or desa, a usage that is now enshrined in Tamil 
Nadu. By 1800, the Tamil vocabulary had formed a basic contrast 
between dry farmland (kadarambam = kadu {dry land} + arambam 


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{tract}) and wet land (nirarambam = nir {water} + arambam), and thus 
between dry cultivation (punsey) and irrigated agriculture (nansey). 
The superiority of irrigated land is clear because punsey connotes 
meagreness and nansey, goodness. But the forest — kadu — had by now 
changed its cultural form and moved from the exterior, to the 
periphery, and to the centre of the Tamil agrarian lexicon. As it 
became more central, its meaning became more varied. In proverbs 
collected in the 1890s, it refers to forest, waste, open pasture, closed 
pasture, dry farmland, or dry field. Subba Rao, the editor of a 
collection of agricultural sayings, avers that kadu, ‘translated as 
“forests” must also be taken to include pastures’, and he continues, ‘in 
these days, as the country is filling up, these should no longer be the 
wild common-grazing grounds on which hitherto dependence has 
been placed, but also enclosed and cultivated pasture fields’ (emphasis 
added). 

In the land of kadu, the animal economy had been domesticated 
within the confines of farming villages, and the separate cultural space 
of pastoralists had totally disappeared by the end of the nineteenth 
century. On the saying, “To ruin a kadu, let loose goats,’ Subba Rao 
comments: ‘the destructive results of grazing sheep and goats are 
alluded to, though here again the word kadu may either be the jungle 
or the field with a crop on it’, because goats eat the field stubble that 
could fertilise the next crop as surely as they destroy open pasture or 
wild scrubland. Subba Rao’s mention of ‘enclosed and cultivated 
pasture fields’ indicates a feature of kadu that also appears in eight- 
eenth-century revenue surveys, which show enclosed pasture as being 
included in taxpayers’ land. A number of proverbs from the 1890s 
prescribe ‘fencing in’ land, and, where these do not refer to fencing 
small garden plots watered by wells (normal practice today), they 
clearly advise the enclosure of land that had previously been open for 
common access. One saying can be rendered, ‘Look at the kadu of a 
man who has closed it off (from use by others) and you will see the 
cattle of a man who knows how to graze livestock properly.’ Likewise, 
another reads, ‘Sow your seeds and shut the door.’ People should not 
be allowed to use dry land as common land. In the 1800s, dry land, 


22 Tamil sayings come from C. K. Subba Rao, Tamil Sayings and Proverbs on Agriculture, 
Madras, Madras Government Agriculture Department Bulletin No. 34, 1896. Telugu sayings 
come from C. Benson, A Collection of Telugu Sayings and Proverbs Bearing on Agriculture, 
Madras, Government Press, 1897. 


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forest, and livestock became sufficiently valuable and private property 
rights well enough established that forceful enclosure became desirable 
for dominant caste farmers to keep the neighbours’ animals off their 
fields, to keep their own grazing land for themselves, and to make 
proprietary claims on village commons. 

The property value of kadu came from two main sources. As 
pasture, its value derived from livestock. One old saying reads: ‘Rich 
kadu make strong cattle; strong cattle make prosperous people; 
prosperous people make rich temples; rich temples make rich kings.’ 
In 1802, Benjamin Heyne reported that, in upland Karnataka, cattle 
were the farmer’s most valuable asset, without which he was ruined: ‘it 
is the last of his property arrested by his creditors and if he owes 
anything to the sarkar they will be seized but never actually taken 
from him.” Sayings in Tamil and Telugu villages indicate the second 
major source of kadu value. A Telugu saying reports, ‘there is no want 
in a house where the spinning wheel and churn are at work’; and the 
Tamil saying argues, ‘there is no famine (panjam) for a man with milk 
and cotton plants.’ Cotton is an archetypal dry land (kadz) cash crop. 
Rivalled after 1880 by oilseeds and groundnuts, cotton was never 
surpassed as the prime crop for the best black soil. Among dry crops, 
cotton is the one that Tamil sayings have yielding ‘potfulls [of money] 
and cash (panam). It is labour intensive and thrives with the deep 
ploughing of rich black soil (karisal). It wants strong bulls, well fed. 
Closely associated with the rearing, buying, and grazing of bulls and 
cows throughout the peninsula, cotton farmers provided the raw 
material for cloth exports, and then for raw cotton exports which 
doubled every few decades after 1840. Cotton cultivation underlay the 
expansion of cotton manufacturing in the seventeenth and eighteenth 
century. Dry land used for commercial production encouraged the 
privatisation of dryland property rights, so that kadu became en- 
tangled in the politics of agricultural commodity production. 

The prominence of commercialism in agrarian life produced a body 
of everyday wisdom concerning the role of markets and moneyed men 
in farming. In general it seems that kinship, religious rituals, alliances 
among dominant families, ethnic or caste identities, and royal 
authority were valued as intrinsic to agriculture, so that commercial 


23 Benjamin Heyne, ‘Correspondence to Captain Mackenzie, Superintendent of the 
Mysore Survey’, National Archives of India, Foreign Miscellaneous Series, No. 94, 1802, 
p- 78. 


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exchange and calculations within this set of social relations seemed 
quite natural; but, at the same time, professional money lending and 
financial speculation seemed exogenous if not anathema inside farming 
communities. A cultural opposition between landed and commercial 
groups is reflected in the division between ‘left hand’ and ‘right hand’ 
castes in the Tamil country, and it pops up repeatedly in Tamil 
proverbs, which posit a natural enmity (jenmapakai) between ve- 
lanmai (the power of farming) and parsimony, cost accounting (sett) 
as well as merchants (setti). The cultural power of the farmer 
(velanmai) is said to be lost when he adopts the merchant’s habits or 
succumbs to merchant control: “The man who takes a loan to farm is 
like a tree climber who lets go with his hands.’ The conflict here is 
between farmers and merchants — two sets of prominent caste groups 
in agriculture — not between farmers and the profit-making, for profits 
had long been part of velanmai. These sayings represent the pride and 
fear of dominant caste landowners who are already enmeshed in 
commodity production. 

Commercialism was deeply entrenched in agricultural discourse in 
many regions during the early-modern period. In the Tamil country, 
all varieties of land and capital assets became known in local parlance 
for their commercial value. In the Tirunelveli region, revenue records 
show a series of equations among types of land, their produce, their 
market value, and their revenue assessment. Dry land (punsey) 
typically produced millets, oilseeds, pulses, and cotton; and it varied in 
value according to its soil type. The best black soils were controlled by 
the most powerful warrior-farming castes, Nayakas and other 
Telugus, who had the strongest bulls and the richest granaries. The 
middling red soil territories were held predominantly by Maravas, the 
second tier in the hierarchy of warrior-farmers. Tracts full of the 
worst sandy soils were held by lower castes, mostly Shanars. Dry 
lands had their own modalities of revenue assessment and market 
evaluation. Officials measured the area of cultivation with a sangili 
(chain) or in rods. The length of the measuring device differed from 
place to place, but everywhere in the peninsula people seem to have 
talked about dry land in terms of its linear area — a practice that may 
have come from estimates of land area by the number of rows a team 
of bulls could plough in a day, a method reported by Heyne in 
Mysore. Everywhere in the south, dry land also appears to have been 
assessed for revenue purposes according to cultivated area (not by the 


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crop) and by soil type, in cash. Tax-related agricultural knowledge 
preserved by Company records indicates that Tamils systematically 
distinguished wet and dry land as objects of commercial evaluation 
and taxation. Dryland taxes were collected in cash, in the manner of 
customs duties. Wet fields (nansey), were taxed predominantly in 
kind, on the assumption that they produced rice. Wet land gained in 
value from irrigation, not soil type, which was not recorded. Culti- 
vated area was not so important as grain output, so that land was 
measured for assessment by the volume of seed sown upon it, not by 
its linear area. The term for ‘land tax on wet land’ was, appropriately, 
varam (share), and social power in the wet lands derived from shares 
of the paddy crop. 

Like the state’s share in the crop, shares in village land (pangu) that 
measured stature in the community had acquired market value long 
before 1800. Garden cultivation, tree crops, houses, shops, and a long 
list of commercial as well as artisan assets were counted, taxed, and 
described in commodity terms in the eighteenth century. As kadu 
travelled from the periphery to the centre of farming, the landscape as 
a whole was commodified. By 1800, markets permeated agrarian life. 


ADMINISTRATION 


The centralisation of state power increased under early-modern 
regimes. But even powerful rulers like Murshid Quli Khan or Tipu 
Sultan did not control the everyday activity of all their local officers, 
and neither did the East India Company. These regimes focused on 
standardising the institutional transactions that brought revenue from 
villages to the capital and sent orders back out into the country. States 
became more bureaucratic and centralised as transactions became 
more rule driven, less personal. By 1700, rulers in distant parts of the 
world used very similar administrative technologies, so that agrarian 
societies experienced empires similarly in the Americas, Europe, and 
Asia. Local officials would be well known to farmers. In regular 
contact with village leaders, they exerted influence in local affairs. 
Regional royalty lived in town. They would discipline the local 
officers now and then, either personally or through intermediaries, 
and they could be appealed to occasionally. Imperial potentates lived 
at a great distance. Their identity, composed substantially of rumour, 
ritual, and myth, was abstract. In such political settings, empires 


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increased their power by standardising state operations and cultivating 
loyalty. The general strategy was to use one’s own men to discipline 
all those who carried state authority, so officials would carry out 
instructions from above and transmit revenue from below without 
being closely monitored. Rulers improved transportation to speed the 
flow of information and troops, as standardisation spread cultural 
commonalities among the men who organised the state. Centralising 
states thus defined territories in which administrative elites acquired 
common languages and identities. A status culture of elite sentiment 
formed among intermediary groups in regional states, rooted locally 
and also connected to the capital. 

State discipline and ritual conditioned the identities, interests, and 
sentiments of key people in the countryside and produced regions of 
agrarian politics. But agrarian conditions limited what states could 
accomplish. Early-medieval dynasties had spawned local gentry who 
were similar in outlook and loyalties, and late-medieval conquerors 
had spread their influence far and wide, but, under medieval condi- 
tions, no ruler could contain agrarian forces of political dispersion. 
The Mughals increased the density and reach of agrarian territories 
under their standard; and, amidst increasing competition for land, 
successor states did the same, deepening the discipline of revenue 
institutions and broadcasting the Mughal vocabulary from places such 
as Arcot, where Mughals had never trod. When the Nawab of Arcot 
allied with the East India Company to bring revenue from as far afield 
as Kanya Kumari, Kurnool, Vizagapatnam, and Malabar, an adminis- 
trative elite of Marathi and Tamil Brahmans fanned out in a new 
administrative territory, which soon became Madras Presidency. Like- 
wise in Bengal, Punjab, Awadh, Maharashtra, Mysore, and Kerala, 
eighteenth-century states built regions of ritual, intrigue, and alliance. 
But farming communities also fought for the land as regional states 
cast their net, and the interaction of local and imperial power became a 
central theme in the agrarian history of modernity. 

Today, local territorialism is still intense in South Asia and, in part, 
it reflects a local resistance to the centralising state. But it also reflects a 
legacy of empires which have fostered local power to secure local 
loyalty, producing nested layers of territoriality. Imperial strategies of 
this kind flourished in the transactional environment of early-moder- 
nity and shaped British rule. In Eurasia, they have long facilitated 
rough-and-tumble imperial expansion and stability — even as they 


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limit a state’s ability to centralise — amidst countless, particularistic 
identities, loyalties, and attachments to land. In South Asia, as in 
Central Asia and the Middle East, lineage and clan organise many 
localising loyalties. As in Southeast Asia and China, tribal societies 
formed separate territories in tropical forests and mountains. Sectarian, 
ethnic, and caste solidarities added to the intricacy of localism over 
centuries of migration and resettlement, as different groups concen- 
trated in their own particular places. Micro-ethnicities developed 
strong local attachments to landscapes that were carved into home- 
lands for hundreds of thousands of groups that clustered together on 
the land. Urbanisation generated new kinds of localities. As a result, 
differently composed agrarian societies developed in differently 
endowed agrarian territories. By 1700, for instance, agrarian urbanism 
along the coast had developed strong attachments to the Indian Ocean 
world of commercial activity, whereas in the interior regions, from 
Kabul to Mysore, urban society was much more attached to the 
authority of warrior-sultans. Imperial incorporation became more 
difficult for the Mughals as they pushed away from their own home- 
land into their southern periphery, where the military culture of the 
Mughal-Rajput nobility could not generate firm loyalties among 
Marathas. In Bengal, business interests entangled with European 
companies around Calcutta and Murshidabad became the financial 
basis for a post-Mughal regime. In all the eighteenth-century states, 
commercial networks sustained the rising power of men whose shared 
sentiments, mentalities, interests, and identities were based on the 
urban, mercantile, political economy of their own local home terri- 
tories. From the 1740s, when the Company began fighting its way 
into regional revenue systems around Calcutta and Madras, its most 
critical allies were elites who combined commercial wealth and state 
authority in settings of agrarian urbanism. The Company used its own 
men to discipline its subordinates but, like the Mughals, it also had to 
incorporate a great diversity of localities to build an imperial polity. 
By 1820, the Company had replaced the Mughals, but even the 
modernisation of British India after 1860 did not erase the localism 
which the Company had built into its empire. It began in the 1740s, 
when the Company forced itself into revenue transactions around 
Madras and Calcutta, receiving revenue from local contractors who 
also conducted trade, finance, and military business on its behalf. 
These men had independent power. Some were Company merchants 


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acting as free agents. Some were businessmen and bankers with 
investments in trade and revenue (portfolio capitalists) — entrepreneurs 
working at the broad intersection of states and markets.”* But at lower 
levels, people who paid revenue worked in the ranks of local officials 
and community leaders. Many revenue interests focused on the land, 
and many people sought to entrench their own position by paying for 
entitlements. Decisions by men of rank at all levels influenced the 
formation of modern agrarian polities, even as the British imagined 
their Indian empire to be purely the product of their own power. Tipu 
Sultan, Poligars, Marathas, Pindaris, Sikhs, Afghans, Gurkhas, and 
rebels in 1857 fought hard for territory; they formed a zone of high 
military resistance to the Company that stretched from the tip of the 
peninsula up through the Deccan, Malwa, Bundelkhand, Awadh, 
Rajasthan, Punjab, and Nepal and into the high mountains bordering 
Afghanistan. Warriors against the British were also involved in local 
military struggles when the British arrived demanding tribute and 
subordination. They saw the British as a part of their own political 
environment, in which warriors were most concerned with their own 
position. Forming unequal alliances to secure subordinate rank in a 
new imperial system could improve one’s position, and many war- 
riors, kings, local officials, and community leaders took this option 
rather than fighting to the end. Many had done the same before. 
Rulers of Native States mostly followed this path of strategic alliance. 
Some, like the Nizam of Hyderabad, became crucial military allies for 
the Company. Scholars have not yet paid much attention to the 
reasoning behind these fateful decisions, or to their political context or 
historical implications. 

When the Company captured territory, it moved immediately to 
settling the revenue and to writing legal codes and administrative 
policies to standardise revenue transactions. Local men of rank were 
forced to come to terms with the new sarkar. Taxes ascended the 
official ranks and entitlements descended from the sarkar to the 
village. The results varied wildly from one part of the new empire to 
another, in part because British India took more than a century to 
complete. Imperial expansion began in 1757 (with the acquisition of 
Bengal and Bihar), rushed ahead from 1790 to 1820 (Madras Presi- 

24 Sanjay Subrahmanyam and C. A. Bayly, ‘Portfolio Capitalists and the Political 
Economy of Early Modern India’, Indian Economic and Social History Review, 25, 4, 1988, 


401-24. 


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dency, Northwestern Provinces, Bombay Presidency), added more 
territory before 1857 (Punjab, Awadh, Sindh, Central India, Lower 
Burma), and finally subdued Awadh and other sites of rebellion 
(including Bundelkhand) after 1857. Old regimes left many different 
kinds of entitlement behind; administrative politics varied within 
British regions; and policies changed with Company charter renewals 
in 1793, 1813, 1833, and 1853. The process of settling the revenue 
changed in character with change at the top and the bottom of the 
imperial hierarchy; after 1870, major differences in agrarian policy and 
law remained, among and within regions. The Native States and Nepal 
had their own rulers, who inherited eighteenth-century territories. 
Though the British intervened regularly in the Native States, their 
official autonomy prevented deep British meddling in the organisation 
of agrarian administration. Hyderabad, the largest Native State, is a 
case in point. Its nobility was confirmed in control of the countryside 
by the Nawabs, despite pressure to raise more state income and to 
recognise tenant rights; and the ossification of this landed aristocracy 
became the context for the Telangana peasant revolution in the 1940s. 
Even the dozens of tiny states in Gujarat and Rajasthan retained their 
own property systems down to the 1950s. 

Inside British India, local influence on the agrarian system came 
from several directions. Most basically, local personnel entered the 
administration, bringing with them old identities, roles, and skills. Key 
people in the country became influential, especially men of rank. 
These were patriarchs with entitlements confirmed by official honours 
and by past revenue payments. They had serious local problems that 
needed tending to. Many were involved in conflicts over entitlements 
when the British arrived. Armies and gangs were loose and demanding 
tribute. Competitors were fighting for pasture, forest, and open land 
around farming settlements. Dams, channels, tanks, and fields were 
broken. Farm workers were being scattered by local distress and 
running off with the season, which made farm labour unpredictable 
and costly. Local men of substance wanted the new government to 
settle such matters in their favour. Revenue settlements became 
political negotiations with the people deemed by the British to be 
most legitimately entitled to pay for revenue in return for titles to 
land. 

Land settlements comprised a formal code of unequal alliance 
between the new sarkar and local leaders, a legally binding template 


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for subsequent transactions, not only for tax payments but also for 
dispute resolution, reassessment, and policy reform. Land settlements 
formed a legal constitution for an agrarian Raj. The sarkar became part 
of the local agrarian order. Like their predecessors, the British defined 
an agrarian citizenry by their official transactions with household 
headmen, whose proprietary entitlements the state would define, 
document, legitimate, regulate, protect, and, of course, tax. 

Between the 1780s and 1820, working in London and with urban 
intellectuals in Calcutta and Madras, Company officers developed the 
ideas that would create a unified theory of British rule and help the 
administration adapt to regional and local circumstances. Orientalist 
scholars saw Europe and India as comparable, related civilisations; so, 
as in Europe, also in India, classical texts held the key to basic cultural 
principles. William Jones and his contemporaries dismissed Muslim 
rulers as invaders and tyrants; when the Company was fighting Tipu 
Sultan, the Company erased the legitimacy of Muslim authority in its 
theory of agrarian governance. The Company established itself as the 
protective ruler of a land of Hindu tradition. This was in some sense a 
recuperation of the idea that the righteous ruler is a protector of 
dharma, and, like medieval kings and Marathas, the Company defined 
dharma in its own terms. Jones found the essence of India in Sanskrit 
texts, especially in texts on dharma. The principle was quickly 
established that diligent investigations could reveal all the salient facts 
about the real India to inform British governance, and it was deter- 
mined that agrarian India was everywhere organised by the rules of 
caste society and by principles of varnashramadharma that repre- 
sented traditional norms and a spiritually sanctioned social order. 
Around 1810, we can see a shift in the organisation of Company 
accounts of the rural population: they were subsequently compiled 
according to the rank order of castes (jati) within the varna scheme 
(Brahman, Kshatriya, Vaisya, and Sudra), even where this set of 
categories had not been applied in earlier English accounts and was 
not in vogue in local society. In the Company scheme, Hindu and 
Muslim law codes needed to be kept separate, and Muslims treated 
separately. Family law and proprietary institutions needed to be 
adjusted by the Raj to suit the traditions of the people, whose literary 
elites, mostly Brahmans, were the experts on tradition. Orientalism 
provided a flexible tool for weaving together revenue settlements and 
for adjusting colonial dharma to local conditions. 


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In 1793, the Act of Permanent Settlement granted a new kind of 
entitlement to zamindars in Bengal, in return for high, fixed cash 
payments, collected strictly on schedule. Defaults would trigger the 
transfer of zamindar titles at auction. These men were thus made 
legally into landlords with ownership rights over and above the 
tenants who paid rent to cultivate zamindari property. As we will see, 
more ranks were formed within this two-tiered zamindari scheme, 
but, from the state’s point of view, zamindars were the legal owners of 
land and all subsidiary rights accrued to people living on their estates. 
Some estates were large, territorially compact, and stable, sometimes 
based upon old royal lineages; and others were small, fragmented, and 
spread over many scattered plots and villages, cobbled together from 
the bits and pieces of revenue farms or lineage holdings. In 1801, some 
zamindars were also anointed in Madras Presidency under the 
authority of the 1793 Act, and here they had virtually all been rulers of 
large, compact territories of conquest colonisation. Such men became 
the agrarian foundation for the new regime in Bengal, Bihar, and the 
central Ganga basin, where they used their existing powers and 
Company authority to claim all the land within British territory. The 
character of their social power and the fate of their family fortunes 
were quite diverse. They included old rajas, former state officials, 
bankers, and revenue contractors. Some ruled their estates as real lords 
of the land and others merely had their men visit the villages now and 
then to collect the rent. Some held onto zamindar titles for many 
generations; some lost them by default within a few years; and, 
everywhere, the turnover of zamindar landownership in decades after 
1793 moved property rights around quite considerably. But all these 
were men of high social status and rank; and in the regions that came 
to be defined by zamindar institutions, they formed a class that was 
capable of sustaining the Company’s revenue. When one defaulted, 
another zamindar could always be found to pay the revenue. In the 
Madras and Bombay Presidencies, however, though warrior rajas in 
territories of conquest colonisation did come forward to become 
zamindars, they controlled but a fraction of the total revenue. The 
term ‘zamindar’ had been used in the eighteenth century to designate 
virtually any person who paid revenue for land, but the 1793 Act 
stipulated that ranks must exist to separate landlords and tenants, and 
they often could not be found. Some influential Company officers also 
craved to enhance the revenue, eliminate revenue intermediaries, and 


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extend state power into the villages beyond what was possible under 
Permanent Settlement and zamindari property law. With such 
motives, Thomas Munro and his allies resisted the broad application 
of the 1793 Act in Madras. Munro fought for twenty-five years against 
the imposition of the Calcutta system; and, at the same time, Utilitar- 
ians and Evangelicals savaged the Orientalists. New renditions of 
ancient tradition were thus contrived to justify new revenue policies. 

To liberate Madras Presidency from Calcutta’s Permanent Settle- 
ment, Munro argued that collecting taxes directly from ryots in their 
villages would lower tax rates for farmers and also increase govern- 
ment revenue. But, to legitimate his land settlements, he had to show 
that they also served the principles of native tradition, that they 
followed indigenous precedents. He compiled evidence for The Fifth 
Report on East India Company Affairs to prove that ryotwari, not 
zamindari, better suited British India. To win his case, Munro had to 
discredit officials such as Francis Ellis, who had textual and ethno- 
graphic evidence to show that Munro was wrong. Ellis had studied old 
gentry villages along the coastal plain, whereas Munro had studied 
warrior-peasant dry villages in Rayalaseema and Kongu. Ellis argued 
that, yes, the village was the basis for traditional social order, but, no, 
peasants did not traditionally own their own land individually; rather, 
they held the land as community property, with each family having a 
set of shares in all community assets. Munro would have nothing of 
this. He insisted that ryots were all individual peasants, as much 
individualists as English farmers; that they had always been family 
property owners who lived in their own village societies, regulated by 
caste tradition; and that only extortionate Muslim overlords like Tipu 
Sultan had forced them to accept revenue intermediaries and zamin- 
dars standing between themselves and the ruler. Munro vanquished 
Ellis, became governor in 1820, and established ryotwari as the 
definitive legal basis for land settlements in Madras. His formulations 
became official wisdom, and they radically homogenised the agrarian 
landscape. His stereotype of the village as ‘a little republic’ dates from 
1806. Published by Mark Wilks, in 1810, during the campaign to write 
The Fifth Report, it would be a pillar of modern administration. Its 
most famous reformulation came in a minute by Charles Metcalfe for 
the Select Committee of the House of Commons on the Affairs of the 
East India Company, in 1830, which had a powerful influence on Karl 
Marx. It reads in part as follows: 


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The village communities are little republics, having nearly everything they want 
within themselves, and almost independent of any foreign relations. They seem to 
last where nothing else lasts. Dynasty after dynasty tumbles down; revolution 
succeeds to revolution; Hindoo, Patan, Mogul, Mahratta, Sik, English are all 
masters in turn; but the village communities remain the same ... If a country 
remain for a series of years the scene of continued pillage and massacre, so that 
villages cannot be inhabited, the scattered villagers nevertheless return whenever 
the power of peaceable possession revives. A generation may pass away, but the 
succeeding generation will return. The sons will take the place of their fathers; the 
same site for the village, the same position for the houses, the same lands, will be 
occupied by the descendants of those who were driven out when the village was 
depopulated. 


As colonial conquest moved ahead, many bouts of research and 
debate about tradition and policy moved from villages to capitals, to 
Parliament, and back again; so that as the sarkar pushed up its 
revenue, year by year, land settlements came to include the ideas and 
interests of many local men with expert knowledge, authority, and 
influence, especially Company officers, landowners, and the urban 
intelligentsia. The empire institutionalised authority at three levels. 
Local authority lay in the village, the taluk (township), and the district 
(county). Regional authority accumulated in provincial and Native 
State capitals. Imperial authority descended from London, Calcutta, 
and New Delhi. Documents produced by and for the higher levels 
took pride of place in the colonial archive, and this imperial perspec- 
tive became most compelling for nationalists and national historians. 
Documentation at the lower levels pertains more directly to agrarian 
communities and gathers dust in provincial and district record rooms. 
The character of all the colonial records changed over the nineteenth 
century as the railway, steamship, printing industry, science, and 
imperial bureaucracy developed modern powers over agrarian admin- 
istration. Agrarian South Asia was steadily homogenised empirically 
as London sent standard forms to be filled out by bureaucrats in every 
locality of the realm. Administrative practice and law involved debate 
at each level. For people in farming communities, the lower levels were 
most powerful, but these did not get much attention in provincial and 
imperial capitals, where localities appeared to be identical sites for the 
implementation of policy. National cultures came into being in big 
cities and initially connected provincial capitals to one another and to 
London; this produced a two-tier imperial polity, in imperial and 
provincial public arenas, from which national movements spread into 


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the countryside. Modern political history has been understood pri- 
marily as a process operating at the higher levels of empire and 
nationality, from which it moved out into the villages. 

But power also moved in other directions. The logic of land 
settlements allowed the majority of early-modern patriarchs to repro- 
duce their own local authority in agrarian territories that were not 
actually as homogeneous as they appeared to be in Madras, Calcutta, 
Bombay, and New Delhi. Imperial and national policy makers did not 
control agrarian governance as much as they imagined, and local 
struggles often determined the character of local institutions. In the 
western regions of the northern basins, militant lineages of warrior- 
peasants, most prominently, Jats, fought to free their entitlements 
from zamindars. In Punjab, where zamindars had been removed under 
the Sikh regime, the Company settled quickly with the locally 
dominant Jat lineages in 1848. The wars in 1857 have been studied 
primarily as an anti-imperial struggle, but locally they also involved 
battles for control of agrarian territory across a huge area spanning 
eastern Punjab, Awadh, Bundelkhand, and Malwa. Here as elsewhere 
in the zone of high military resistance, warriors fought not only 
against the Company but also for control of territory; they fought the 
Company because it threatened their rank, status, entitlements, and 
income — their identity and position in agrarian society. These 
struggles and many more accentuate the political character of land 
revenue settlements and the imperial importance of stabilising prop- 
erty entitlement by giving it to the strongest local contenders. After 
1857, in Awadh, the biggest landed aristocrats were confirmed as the 
rulers of the countryside. Adjusting policy to garner loyalty among 
key people in the country stabilised the empire, and the local social 
forces that spoke to the state most effectively in the nineteenth century 
have remained prominent ever since. 

Agrarian regions took a more definite shape as the empire subsumed 
every locality within its homogenising intelligence and provincial 
governments assumed responsibilities not only for collecting revenue 
and maintaining law and order but also for administering develop- 
ment. A transition is visible in the middle decades of the nineteenth 
century toward a more modern, bureaucratic, centralised empire, 
more involved in managing its agrarian resources. By the 1840s, 
Parliament was gathering information routinely from the provinces 
for compilation and analysis in London. An imperial picture of 


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agrarian India was taking shape as the Great Trigonometrical Survey 
was claiming comprehensive accuracy in mapping.*° Parliament inves- 
tigated bonded labour and means to make improvements in cotton 
cultivation. In the 1840s, when prices were low and complaints were 
increasing against Company officials for coercive tactics in revenue 
collections, questionnaires considered administrative and legal reform 
and sought means to expand British investments in India. In Madras, 
the Torture Commission concluded that native officials needed to be 
replaced with more obedient, well-trained, British bureaucrats. In 
Calcutta, officials responded to entreaties from sugar planters in 
Trinidad by sending shiploads of indentured plantation workers to 
replace freed slaves. In London, arrangements were made for major 
capital investments in Indian railways and Arthur Cotton was arguing 
for big state investments in irrigation. In all this flurry of activity 
during the 1840s and 1850s, we can see early examples of a modern 
discourse on agricultural development. It began to project a power to 
transform agrarian conditions that moved out from London to 
provincial capitals and into the villages. In the global perspective of 
empire — which we can see in 1844 Parliamentary hearings that 
considered what to do to about the threat posed by boll weevils in 
Georgia, and concluded that increasing cotton supplies from India and 
Egypt was the only answer — modern science and technology travelled 
from Europe to the East, as raw materials and workers moved in the 
opposite direction; and British India became a unified agricultural 
territory for analysis and improvement, under the gaze of a hierarchi- 
cally structured, scientific system. As surveyors set out to map every 
inch of India, detailed lithograph maps appeared in British books with 
accounts of economic products and business opportunities. During 
Lord Dalhousie’s tenure as Governor-General (1848-1856), ‘rural 
India’, “Indian agriculture’, ‘peasant India’, and ‘village India’ became 
objects of discussion, not only in official accounts but also in 
journalism and social theory, as in the work of Karl Marx. 

Provincial governments turned this new information into pro- 
grammes of improvement, and their political institutions most clearly 
shaped modern agrarian polities, because provincial capitals consti- 
tuted the effective apex of authority on most agrarian issues. Provincial 


25 Matthew H. Edney, Mapping an Empire: The Geographical Construction of British 
India, 1765-1843, Chicago, 1997, p. 304. 


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boundaries marked territories of law, transportation, local languages, 
and irrigation building. Each province had its own terms for entitle- 
ments, which defined its agrarian citizenry. In Bengal, Bihar, Awadh, 
eastern Uttar Pradesh, and the Central Provinces, the men who 
mattered most for the state in the country were the large landlords: 
zamindars, talukdars, malguzars. In the Madras and Bombay Presi- 
dencies, Sindh, Assam, Arakan, and lower Burma, they were instead 
substantial ryots and village leaders. In Punjab and western Uttar 
Pradesh, they were smaller zamindars and leaders of joint proprietary 
communities, organised around kinship units (biradari). All the 
administrative territories of modern agrarian political history were 
inscribed on early-modern regions in which the legacy of the Mughals 
is apparent. Where strong military alliances had succeeded the 
Mughals in the eighteenth century, Native States appeared (in Ra- 
jasthan, Malwa, Bundelkhand, Baghelkhand, Saurashtra, Kashmir). 
Where successor states maintained Mughal zamindari ranks, zamindar 
settlements emerged under the British (in northern basins and central 
mountains — Bengal, the United Provinces, and Central Provinces). 
Where Mughal successor states broke through the ranks of zamindars 
to form direct connections between regional rulers and agricultural 
communities, the Company followed suit: here we find joint property 
communities (Punjab) and village Ryotwari settlements (Bombay and 
Madras). Big states on the Mughal periphery became independent 
states (Nepal) and Native States (Hyderabad, Trivandrum, Mysore). 
More than a third of the land area of South Asia came by treaty into 
Native States and independent dynasties. Though they came under 
heavy-handed influence and pressure from the British, these rulers had 
the power to create their own agrarian institutions. Native States 
concentrated in areas that were distant from the central sites of 
Company power in the eighteenth century; in these regions, Company 
authority would have been most expensive to establish and maintain. 
They were also most prominent in the zone of high military resistance, 
in the peninsular interior (Hyderabad and Mysore), in Rajasthan and 
adjacent areas of Saurashtra, in a ring of the central mountain land- 
scape running from Malwa to interior Orissa, and in the high 
mountains (Kashmir, Nepal, Bhutan, Sikkim). These were also areas 
that were dominated politically by on-going conquest colonisation at 
the time of British accession. The archives of Native States are quite 
unlike those of British India, so the documentary basis for writing the 


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agrarian history of South Asia remains highly fractured and disparate 
even in modern times. British territory (that is, land outside the Native 
States in British India) has been the main object of historical studies. A 
very old historical separation of different kinds of agrarian regions has 
thus remained even under the homogenising force of modernity; and it 
was only partially overcome by the profusion of integrating technolo- 
gies, from the railway and monetary system to English education and 
electronic media. Regions such as Rajasthan, Kashmir, and Telangana, 
which have good documentation for agrarian history under the 
Mughals, virtually drop out of agrarian historical research after 1800. 
Other areas — like Assam, the Central Provinces, and Uttarakhand — 
become visible as never before under the British. The high mountains 
in the north-east and north-west remained under separate adminis- 
trative agencies, separated from lowland administrations. Sri Lanka 
and Myanmar came under Colonial Office administration rather than 
under the India Office in London — and their historical literature has 
been fully detached from the history of British India. Strategic areas of 
special administration in the eastern and western high mountains 
generated records that are also detached physically and thus historio- 
graphically from other regions. As a result, it is quite impossible to 
write a modern agrarian history that is both comprehensive and 
sensitive to all the regions. 

A very sketchy picture of the institutional geography that organises 
modern agrarian history can be achieved, however, by superimposing 
colonial settlements on farming landscapes. Native and independent 
states are prominent in the high mountains (Kashmir, Nepal and Terai, 
Bhutan), the western plains (Sindh, Rajasthan [Jaisalmere, Marwar, 
Mewar, and Ajmer], northern Gujarat, Saurashtra, and Malwa), the 
central mountains (Baghelkhand, Chota Nagpur, Jharkhand, interior 
Orissa, Bastar), and the peninsula interior (Mysore, Hyderabad). 
Regions of special administration were established in the high moun- 
tains in the west and east (in Baluchistan, Himachal, Kangra, Uttarak- 
hand, along the Karakoram Range, and in Nagaland, Mizoram, 
Manipur, and Assam). The areas for which the most continuous, 
accessible historical record is available from medieval to modern times 
are those that came under direct British administration, and their 
institutional geography divides roughly into two groups of territories. 
Zamindari and malguzari regions covered the northern river basins 
and the valleys and plains in the central mountains. Here, agrarian 


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colonialism meant landlordism (in western Punjab, Ganga basin, 
Bengal, and Assam, and also in many western mountain regions, in 
Uttarakhand, the Indus valley, Sindh, and Bundelkhand). The expan- 
sion of cultivation and legal struggles produced various admixtures of 
private farmer and peasant holdings, which became ever more promi- 
nent in territories of (later) malguzari settlements in the Central 
Provinces (Chhattisgarh, Khandesh, and Berar). Regions of ryotwari 
and mahalwari (village) settlement covered the peninsula, including 
most of the coast and the interior (Madras and Bombay Presidencies), 
and also Myanmar, Ceylon, and eastern Punjab. These regions had 
some zamindars and Native States, but the British regime for the most 
part enforced individual farm property rights. Here, the land of 
individual owners — ryots — was assessed individually and revenue was 
collected in return for a pattah that became a title to private property. 
In Punjab, Uttar Pradesh, and the Nagpur territories (across Chhattis- 
garh and much of the central mountains), the British applied a motley 
combination of zamindari and ryotwari modes, depending largely on 
local circumstances. Like all ryotwari and mahalwari revenue settle- 
ments, these were temporary; that is, the amount due to the state 
would vary according to periodic assessments by state officials. 


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MODERNITY 


In the nineteenth century, industrial empire brought new force into 
the transformation of agrarian regions. Britain controlled the corridors 
of mobility in southern Eurasia. English became the imperial language. 
A new rupee homogenised the money supply. 

In 1800, cowry shells from the Andamans were the currency in 
Sylhet, and dozens of different silver, gold, and copper coins filled 
markets from Surat to Chittagong. Money changers worked every 
corner. But in the 1820s, the Company’s silver rupee set the monetary 
standard and market prices began a tumble that lasted thirty years. In 
these hard decades, markets contracted along routes of imperial 
expansion, real taxation increased, seasons of scarcity were common, 
and overseas cloth exports died. The Act of 1793 had established a 
permanent settlement with no survey, no records of rights, and no 
definite method of assessment; after 1820, zamindari settlements 
required the recording of rights, annual assessments of cultivated land, 
and periodic reassessments. Almost everywhere, routine revenue 
collections provoked struggles and dislocations. When indigo stocks 
crashed on the London exchange, Bihari peasants lost their income 
and tenants lost their land. The Torture Commission in Madras 
reported routine beatings by revenue officers. Company critics multi- 
plied in London but could not quite topple the old regime before 
rebellions killed the Company in 1857. Crown rule ended an imperial 
crisis. Prices had begun moving upward again by 1855, and decades of 
inflation then steadily lowered the real cash burden of revenue and 
rent. Land became more attractive for investors as a veneer of 
modernity covered British India. An imperial system of weights and 
measures, administration, and law spread along with commodity 
production in every region, as open land for new farms disappeared. 
Horrible famines marked the decades from 1860 to 1900, but a long 
upward price trend stimulated commercial agriculture until the crash 
in 1929. Then, the great depression introduced two decades of disrup- 
tion and radicalisation; and it also made the elimination of village 
poverty and the protection of internal markets a central concern for 


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nationalists. After independence, national governments embraced all 
regions with projects of national development. Today, we look back 
over a long modern century in which farming communities have 
engaged a world of states, capitalism, and nationality. 


MOFUSSIL 


Mofussil: 


‘The provinces,’ — the country stations and districts, as contra-distinguished from 
‘the Presidency’; or, relatively, the rural localities of a district as contra-distin- 
guished from the sudder or chief station, which is the residence of the district 
authorities.! 


The British imperial state defined the agrarian economy for rational, 
centralised management. In the 1790s, surveyors like Hamilton 
Buchanan had begun to assess potentials for agricultural exports. The 
first British missions to the interior of Ceylon went to assess the 
potential for British investment in exports. From the early 1800s, 
imperial policies deliberately depressed Indian cloth exports, encour- 
aged British cloth imports into India, and promoted Indian exports of 
opium, cotton, and indigo, and later tea, coffee, leather, rice, wheat, 
jute, and rubber. By 1840, the Parliamentary Papers published detailed 
accounts of economic matters in many regions of Asia and the 
Americas. Of all the national economies of the western world, the 
British economy depended most on agricultural imports and least on 
the buying power (thus the income) of its own farmers.” Agrarian 
regions in South Asia acquired export identities. Opium from Bengal 
and Bihar became the linchpin of the China trade. The City bankers 
who raised capital for railways in India worked with Parliament to 
boost cotton exports from Bombay, Madras and Egypt in order to 
address cotton supply problems at Manchester caused first by boll 
weevils and then by impending civil war in Alabama and Georgia. 
Berar became cotton country, alongside Egypt. Assam, Darjeeling, 
and Sri Lanka became tea country, as British planters took mountain 
land away from hill farmers by buying it from the government and 
acquired labour supplies from Bihar and Madras to build their new 


! Hobson-Jobson: A Glossary of Colloguial Anglo-Indian Words and Phrases, edited by 
Henry Yule and A. C. Burnell, first published 1886; new edition 1985, p. 570. 

? Niek Koning, The Failure of Agrarian Capitalism: Agrarian Politics in the UK, 
Germany, the Netherlands and the USA, 1846-1919, London, 1994, p. 168. 


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plantations. Mysore coffee was first a peasant crop, but British 
plantations took over the hills to produce coffee exports. As the 
Malnad became coffee country, warrior races manned the imperial 
army. Nepal and Punjab exported Gurkha and Sikh fighters, as Bihar 
exported landless workers. Bhojpuris came to Calcutta to board ships 
for Trinidad, as Caribbean sugar planters lobbied in London against 
loud critics of indentured labour. Workers imported from India came 
to many sites of British export production in Africa, Fiji, and 
Malaysia. Agrarian South Asia exported labour, raw materials, and 
processed goods for world markets, and the list grew longer as time 
went by to include rice, wheat, jute, hides and skins, pulses, and many 
other products, as well as workers from virtually every agrarian 
region. 

In this context, a shift occurred in the character of the state’s 
interaction with farming communities and also in the character of 
social power in agriculture. In 1840, an old kind of territoriality still 
prevailed, composed of transactions among key people on the land. 
The Company collected taxes from its local allies and subordinates, 
and gave entitlements in return. Transactional territories were formed 
among patriarchs whose names and social identities are prominent in 
the local records of early British rule, when the internal and external 
boundaries of empire remained in flux. By 1880, modern, adminis- 
trative territories had emerged in the pacified lands of British India. 
Farmland was surveyed and demarcated. Maps recorded the bound- 
aries of plots, estates, villages, roads, forests, and public property. State 
bureaucracy and law defined entitlements to land, labour, and capital. 
Industry defined a new kind of territory: railways formed scaffolding 
for new military, urban, and commercial structures, and the Indian 
Civil Service was dubbed ‘the iron frame’ of empire. World markets 
for Indian commodities expanded and commodity production became 
much more visibly part of everyday agricultural life, especially along 
the railway. Urbanism accelerated most rapidly along these same 
tracks, because all the people and institutions that connected the world 
economy to farming villages clustered in cities and towns, most of all 
at terminal points by the sea. In colonial cities that were among the 
biggest in the world, British and Indian elites defined modernity, each 
in their own terms. 

Village folk also played key roles in making modern institutions. 
Moving out — like the Mughals — from their fortress towns, the 


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Company had called suitable men to settle the revenue, and every- 
where patriarchs had come forward. For these men, settling with the 
British never meant voting in favour of colonialism, much less giving 
up their independence; rather, it meant dealing with the sarkar to 
bolster entitlements. Settling with the Company did not diminish the 
old potency of ritual, dharma, kinship, credit, coercion, and social 
status; and the sarkar actually needed powerful local allies to collect its 
revenue and maintain law and order locally. Many armed rulers and 
peasants did fight against subordination to the British as they battled 
for local and regional power in agrarian territories, and these struggles 
continued throughout British rule and beyond. Company settlements 
and assessments typically met resistance. Yet, in the accumulation of 
negotiations and struggles, imperial needs for revenue and stability 
eventually met local needs for entitlements and protection; and, little 
by little, enough key people in the country aligned their ambition with 
the Company to establish a new regime. 

The new state came to be quite different from its predecessors. The 
white elite with its peculiar language and dress, detached itself from 
agrarian society. Its laws were foreign, penned in English, and 
purported to adapt, even to perfect, ancient principles. The sarkar 
demanded taxes in cash and set tax rates without reference to seasonal 
variation in the harvest. Government refused to see the local com- 
plexity and variability of entitlements. Instead, it enforced crude codes 
of property ownership that separated individual rights from group 
claims to the shifting sets of elements that formed bundles of agrarian 
patrimony. Legally, it even detached land ownership and taxation 
from family status and community rights, obligations, and member- 
ship. This state also claimed to have a supreme right of ownership over 
all land, so that failure to pay its cash revenue on time justified the 
official auction of land deeds to other taxpayers. The British were 
parsimonious rulers, apparently ignorant of the ancient power of royal 
generosity. They did not like to give out advances to finance farm 
operations at the start of the season. Sarkar taccavi loans did continue 
— and could be substantial, as we see below — but they became rare and 
lost the quality of personal honour. British rulers withdrew from 
patronising temples, mosques, and rituals, and from entertaining local 
nobles at court. Christian rulers did not respect or patronise darbari 
patriarchy. Religious patronage boomed, but it now assumed a new 
kind of private status, detached from the official operations of the 


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state. Tax collectors did not respect the social rank of taxpayers or give 
indefinite extensions or special dispensations in recognition of social 
status. Government eventually even eliminated tax-free land grants, 
old symbols of rank and sources of respectable income. Invisible 
legislators in mythical London dictated rules and procedures that local 
authorities seemed helpless to change. District Collectors, who had 
autocratic powers of enforcement, seemed impotent to change the 
rules to suit local interests. To change government policy, influential 
men had to present their case in district towns and in provincial 
capitals, where making personal connections with officials became 
more complex and costly than ever. Specialists for this purpose 
became more numerous. Representing landed interests in town 
became a speciality for the sons and retainers of the gentry and 
zamindars. Already in 1784, when Sylhet zamindars were still waging 
wars for land on the battlefield, they retained vakils (pleaders) in 
Calcutta to argue cases in court against the English Collector. The 
1881 census counted 357 vakils in the tiny district town of Tanjore in 
Madras Presidency. Landowners in all districts made regular represen- 
tations to Boards of Revenue, and pleading for landowners and 
publicising their difficulties became a good profession. By the 1840s, 
landowners’ associations were hard at work in the provincial capitals, 
and in the 1880s, landowners and their representatives filled Local and 
District Boards in every province. In 1892, the Tax Payers Association 
became the District Association in the Kistna District of Madras, 
reorganised along the lines of the Indian National Congress. By 1900, 
landowner demands for lower taxation had become a permanent 
agrarian plank for the Congress. 

Land ownership became a qualification for a peculiar kind of 
imperial citizenship whose character derived from the political posi- 
tion of property rights in each region. Property owners participated 
actively in state institutions. They had official standing — status — in the 
state. Their disputes filled Company courts, as the cost, conditions, 
definition, expansion, and protection of landed property rights became 
the central issue in agrarian politics. English education expanded 
opportunities for landed families. Family status now depended upon 
property, wealth, and profession, in addition to other symbolic assets; 
though family connections remained critical assets, they declined as 
criteria for status in the state. Fathers passed the village offices of 
headman and magistrate down to their sons, and, in zamindari estates, 


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relatives of the owner and his minions formed the local elite; but a 
broader based agrarian citizenry formed politically as the state 
acquired more power to adjudicate and appoint without reference to 
heredity. Lawyers and politicians emerged as actors in agrarian 
politics. Even tenants became people endowed with rights, in legal 
theory and practice, so that zamindari became one kind of property 
right among others, sandwiched between the state and peasants. 
Bureaucracy displaced family ties and old modes of social ranking. 
Unlike previous rulers, the Anglo sarkar would not marry their sons 
to the daughters of subaltern allies. State transactions were shorn of 
their family and their commercial elements. State offices ceased to be 
hereditary property and marketable commodities. Buying offices or 
state favours became illegal. Old, respected practices for pressing 
personal influence continued, but their official status changed with the 
invention of ‘corruption’. The portfolio capitalist — part banker, 
entrepreneur, warrior, tax collector, and nobleman - disappeared. 
Transactions between the state and landowners shrivelled in their 
cultural content, along with the substance of entitlements, as locally 
dominant families became less involved in the overall construction of 
agrarian authority, now monopolised by a bureaucratic state. Agrarian 
patriarchs were reduced to dealing with the state on a narrow set of 
issues concerning taxes, rights, and the value of land. Land had been 
but one feature of agrarian territory; now it was everything. It became 
a domineering commodity that defined the nature of social relations in 
farming communities and power relations between farmers and the 
state. The power of money also increased dramatically as entitlements 
to land came to rest solely on the ability to pay taxes and rents — no 
exceptions. The best a Collector would do in response to personal 
pleas for tax relief was to grant a remission for reasons of general 
distress. The power of professional money men increased further 
because the higher cost of growing commodity crops had to be met 
before the harvest, which entailed debts, mortgages, and accumulating 
interest. It became more common for people to lose their land for 
failure to pay cash on time either to the sarkar or to the sowkar 
(banker or moneylender). Finance became more critical as a moving 
element in agriculture because now it could buy entitlements protected 
by the state independently of the will of communities or dominant 
families. Money could buy power independently of family rank. 

This new institutional environment evolved and expanded slowly. 


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Each decade, it encompassed more territory, and on its frontiers the 
old rules still applied, as old rajas, zamindars, and farming commu- 
nities brought new land under the plough. Old entitlements were 
smuggled into new properties and many old modes of power were 
codified, surveyed, and legalised. The British respected rights of first 
possession and many grants by previous rulers. Old mirasidar rights 
to tenant land became ryot property in Madras, and, in Maharashtra, 
rentier khot claims were included within ryotwari pattahs. B. H. 
Baden Powell reported that, in 1880, 20 per cent of all ryotwari land in 
Bombay Presidency included landlord and rent-free imam elements.? 
‘The multilayered complexity of hereditary revenue rights was only 
partially transformed by colonial administration during the 19th 
century’, and many former titled officers called jagirdars, sardars, 
inamdars, deshmukhs, and deshpandes kept revenue estates inherited 
from Maratha days.* Old rates of assessment also entered the new tax 
regime. Favourable rates and concessions continued which had been 
granted to local elites and officials. Religious institutions of all sorts 
retained their land, not because the Company was generous, but 
because local power was most often decisive in shaping the details of 
revenue practice. Initially, locals even set the rates of assessment and 
procedures for collection. Company officials did not understand all 
the factors that impinged upon farm yields and, greedy for revenue, 
they often assumed high, stable productivity and ignored seasonal 
fluctuations when assessing the value of land. This produced steep, 
regressive tax schedules, which assessed poor dry lands and poor 
peasants at proportionately higher rates than the best irrigated land 
and rich landowners. The Company thus followed the same logic that 
pertained within zamindari estates in the northern basins: high-status 
tenants with better land exerted more influence and paid lower taxes. 
But the Company never knew exactly what land was being taxed, 
where it was, and how it was being used; this was not ascertained 
before the plot-by-plot surveys, after 1870. 

Under the Company, the ‘revenue village’ became the elemental 
unit of administration, and it became so everywhere in South Asia. 
But villages were also territories of social power outside the state, and, 


3 Neil Charlesworth, “The Myth of the Deccan Riots of 1875’, in David Hardiman, ed., 
Peasant Resistance in India, 1858-1914, Delhi, 1993, p. 216. 

+ Donald W. Attwood, Raising Cane: The Political Economy of Sugar in Western India, 
Boulder, 1992, p. 102. 


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even today, there is a persistent discrepancy between what the state 
calls ‘a village’ and what villagers think.° Initially, powerful locals 
determined where one revenue village ended and another began, and 
until the 1870s many struggles for land occurred outside official view. 
Because official status accompanied land rights, people with rights to 
land had various degrees of power to define those rights in practice, 
and boundaries remained fuzzy between local politics, society, law, 
police, and administration. The making of modern institutions that 
delimit precisely the content of property rights took a long time and 
entailed a long set of shifts in power relations between localities and 
the imperial state, which altered modes of power in agrarian territories 
across the nineteenth century. Like the Mughals, the British initially 
provided military muscle for prominent local families in competition 
for resources, and these families in turn stabilised the sarkar at its base 
by forming local proprietary institutions through which the state 
could realise tax revenues and codify its regime. The property system 
that emerged has long outlived British rule as the foundation of 
agrarian politics in modern South Asia. It includes many simmering 
conflicts that periodically boil up violently during bad seasons, even 
today. But records of local conflicts over land indicate that, during the 
settlement process itself, there was a formal regime of proprietary 
politics at work in each agrarian region. Some rules and rights came 
from the old regime into British rule but, with the arrival of the British 
and the disappearance of open land for new colonisation, the rules 
changed. Money and litigation gave local contenders new leverage. As 
a result, during revenue settlements, surveys, tax collections, petitions, 
demonstrations, riots, battles, and policy revisions, claimants to land 
formed agrarian polities within British India. Lawyers and bureaucrats 
formed a class of mediators and representives for conflicting agrarian 
interests. Little by little, warfare on the land faded away and struggles 
inside agriculture assumed their modern civility. 

By 1900, proprietary institutions enjoyed a substantial hegemony. 
Since then, agrarian struggles have worked within the framework of 
individual private property rights, though some tribal movements 
have asserted collective rights and sought legal protection for tribal 
territories. Even communists have fought to expand the scope of 


5 Shapan Adnan, Annotation of Village Studies in Bangladesh and West Bengal: A Review 
of Socio-Economic Trends over 1942-88, Kotbari Comilla, 1990, p. 35; and E. Valentine 
Daniel, Fluid Signs: Being a Person the Tamil Way, Berkeley, 1984. 


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private property. The village has also remained the accepted micro- 
territory of public authority and agrarian politics. Civility in agrarian 
polities does break down, as we can see today in Kashmir, Bihar, 
Telangana, Nagaland, and Sri Lanka. Violent struggles continue in 
village life. State violence always lurks inside civil institutions. But for 
a century now, property conflicts have had a remarkably civil demean- 
our in most regions and localities, and the institution of private 
property has never been the object of sustained political assault. 
Modern agrarian struggles focus rather on the redistribution of rights, 
and the normative trend is toward wider, more equitable distribution, 
toward the creation of more individual holdings and more private 
rights. A consensus would seem to hold across a wide political 
spectrum that the ideal agrarian condition is one in which farm families 
in village societies privately own and work their own land, endowed 
with all the finance, implements, and inputs necessary to increase 
productivity, under state protection. This model guides land reform, 
economic planning, the green revolution, and party politics. On the 
Left, ‘land to the tiller’ encodes a struggle to end feudalism and to 
fulfil Jawaharlal Nehru’s promise to ‘remove gross inequalities’ from 
Indian society. On the Right, private property is a bedrock of 
tradition. Public protection for private property is certainly one major 
pillar of the legitimacy of the modern state in South Asia, including 
the colonial state; because of this, legitimate political activity inside 
state institutions has dominated politics rather than struggles to over- 
throw existing institutions of law and governance.® True, state institu- 
tions provide a framework for repression and privilege; but they also 
support striving, patronage, collective mobilisation, and conflict reso- 
lution. Peasant struggles have primarily had private property in view. 
The architect of zamindari abolition in Uttar Pradesh, Charan Singh, 
understood this well when he said this in 1957: 


The political consequences of the land reforms are. . . far reaching. Much thought 
was given to this matter since the drafters of the legislation were cognisant of the 
need to ensure political stability in the countryside. By strengthening the principle 
of private property where it was weakest, i.e. at the base of the social pyramid, the 
reformers have created a huge class of strong opponents of the class war ideology. 
By multiplying the number of independent land-owning peasants there came into 

© For national politics, see Shashi Joshi, Struggle for Hegemony in India, 1920-1947: The 
Colonial State, the Left and the National Movement. Volume II: 1920-1934, New Delhi, 


1992; and Bhagwan Joshi, Struggle for Hegemony in India, 1920-1947: The Colonial State, 
the Left and the National Movement. Volume I: 1934-41, New Delhi, 1992. 


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being a middle of the road stable rural society and a barrier against political 
extremism.” 


There is still much to learn about the history of this hegemony. 
Until now, scholars have relied upon theories of colonial encounter, 
and we can see in the literature two sets of images, whose elements can 
be combined. One depicts a juggernaut of western modernity rolling 
over traditional Eastern communities, which were mauled, trans- 
formed, modernised, or shocked into rebellion and resistance, though 
some of their cultural features did manage to survive — and among 
these survivals, caste, patriarchy, and religious identity are most 
conspicuous. Another set of images depicts colonial alliances being 
made between British and Indian elites, which combined old and new 
forms of power to create a new kind of agrarian environment. The 
first set of images resonates with cultural ideas like those of Radha- 
kamal Mukerjee and more broadly with theories that render societies 
in terms of structures and ideal-types. Historians have used it to 
explain social disruption and peasant upheavals under colonialism.® 
The latter set of images, by contrast, reiterates Nehru’s argument that 
‘the great poverty and misery of the Indian People are due, not only to 
foreign exploitation in India but also to the economic structure of 
society, which the alien rulers support so that their exploitation may 
continue’. This imagery of class alliance and exploitation spawned the 
idea of a semi-feudal mode of production which cannot move into 
full-fledged capitalism because it depends on feudal forms of power 
(caste, patriarchy, and direct coercion) but also cannot remain fully 
feudal because it needs and feeds the capitalist economy and modern 
state. Scholars have used this class imagery to explain the rise of 
political parties, persistent underdevelopment and inequality, and the 
general condition of subaltern domination.’ Both kinds of imagery of 
colonial encounter render the mofussil an abstraction, a place without 
history, a set of structures and forms of power without internal 


7 Charan Singh, Agrarian Revolution in Uttar Pradesh, Allahabad, 1957, p. 41, quoted in 
Peter Reeves, Landlords and Government: A Study of Their Relations Until Zamindari 
Abolition, Bombay, 1991, p. 295. 

8 See, for example, Ravinder Kumar, Western India in the Nineteenth Century: A Study 
of the Social History of Maharashtra, London, 1968; and Hardiman, ed., Peasant Resistance, 
pp. 1-13. 

° David A. Washbrook, The Emergence of Provincial Politics: The Madras Presidency, 
1870-1920, Cambridge, 1976; Amit Bhaduri, The Economic Structure of Backward Agricul- 
ture, London, 1983; and Ranajit Guha, Elementary Aspects of Peasant Insurgency, in 
Colonial India, Delhi, 1983, pp. 6-8. 


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conflicts and dynamics that interacted with the moving force of 
colonialism.'° But evidence from a century of disparate colonial 
encounters indicates that agrarian societies were all in flux at the time 
of their incorporation, quite independently of British intervention. 
From the beginning of British rule, local struggles - to establish 
entitlements, expand cultivation, increase commodity production, and 
intensify land use — shaped the form of the colonial state and 
influenced its operation in the countryside. At first, property entitle- 
ment and revenue collections were the main connection between the 
empire and its villages, and we have seen how pre-modern territori- 
ality was embedded in ranking and ritual activity that crossed the line 
between village and state. Local entitlements continued to depend on 
the conversion of material resources into symbolic forms such as 
patriarchal rank, money, and temple honours, and this produced many 
kinds of entitlement to the elements of landed property, which 
remained as the modern state drew legal and bureaucratic lines 
between village society and the state. Legally, the state separated 
property in land from social powers over labour, ritual, water, and 
forest. It homogenised territory by propagating an abstract appearance 
of modernity. But country folk brought official abstractions down to 
the ground, and countless local histories of the emergence of modern 
institutions still hide in the archives, out of public view. District 
records maintained in Collectors’ offices contain the most detailed 
information on struggles over land, labour, and capital before 1880; 
and detailed court, police, and administrative records that form 
provincial archives are supplemented after 1920 by local academic 
studies. 

Historically, neither imperialism nor agrarian society was a unitary 
structure, and many features of modernity which appear to be imposi- 
tions of colonialism or inventions of British India were a much longer 
time in the making. Certainly, the British did codify private property 
and induce commodity production, but they did not need to invent 


10 Partha Chatterjee has rearranged the elements and combined these two sets of images 
by separating a ‘feudal mode of power’ that is ‘characterized fundamentally by sheer 
superiority of physical force ... founded on conquest or some other means of physical 
subordination of a subject population .. .” from a ‘communal mode of power’ that ‘exists 
where individual or sectional rights, entitlements, or obligations are allocated on the 
authority of the entire social collectivity’. See his ‘More on Modes of Power and Peasantry’, 
in Ranajit Guha, ed., Subaltern Studies II: Writings on South Asian History and Society, 
Delhi, 1983, pp. 311-50, reprinted in Ranajit Guha and Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, eds., 
Selected Subaltern Studies, New York, 1988, pp. 351-90 (quote: p. 358). 


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either one, because both have longer histories going back to medieval 
times. Theorists of tradition have long claimed that a lack of private 
property in South Asia derived from a monopoly of land ownership 
by the state and from collective social controls in village communities, 
and that caste, sect, and other forms of cultural collectivity in village 
society thwarted capitalist individualism and the privatisation of 
property. A stark theoretical opposition has thus emerged between 
Europe’s competitive, individualist rationalism and Asia’s collective, 
traditional, peasant community consciousness. But early-medieval 
inscriptions document strong communal, village institutions and also 
individually owned family property in farming communities. Early- 
modern records show many kinds of community arrangements for 
sharing, dividing, and reallocating land among fiercely independent, 
possessive families. Such arrangements still remain today. In Andhra 
Pradesh, villagers distribute risk by sharing costs and responsibilities 
in agriculture. In the Paxtunistan, land redistribution among clans 
(wesh) continued until 1960. Such local institutions entail conflictual 
negotiations, agreements, and diplomacy among families who have 
individual entitlements to land, whose self-interested family members 
depend upon and constitute their family’s power and position in the 
community. Kinship involves constant inter-family negotiations that 
facilitate competitive enterprise. In Gujarat, village women chat reg- 
ularly in circles of kin to maintain co-operative alliances among their 
families. In coastal Andhra, village elders typically attest to and 
adjudicate rental agreements between private parties, and caste and 
kinship form bonds of trust in oral contracts that are pegged to market 
prices. Village community institutions such as the panchayat and 
shalish resolve conflicts among families amidst cross-cutting solida- 
rities and in the face of competing, private interests. We thus see in 
contemporary and historical evidence that agrarian communities are 
typically held together as their internal diversity and conflict are 
combined with co-operation and accommodation in social networks 
of agrarian activity; and that few agrarian communities form solid 
collective identities with closed, unitary moral economies. 

Farming communities did participate in rebellions that erupted 
from the everyday stresses and strains of oppression, social change, 
and resource competition. At moments of mass mobilisation, peasants 
may appear as a collective or a communal mass rising up against their 
rulers, and self-absorbed British observers certainly thought that 


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peasant upheavals were Indian assaults on the existence of their 
government. But in South Asia, agriculture is not a collective peasant 
enterprise, except in some tribal societies, and peasants are not a 
unitary mass, even during upheavals. Rebellions before 1857 were 
primarily wars for territory of a sort that had been waged for 
centuries; after 1857, they became political struggles inside the frame- 
work of the state. It is only in tribal societies that old collective 
identities have been organised routinely as collective political opposi- 
tion to the modern state itself. Forest, jum, and other modes of tribal 
cultivation were accomplished by multi-family collectives, and tribal 
communities were not typically integrated in the ranks of entitlements 
and revenue transactions that defined the older agrarian states. After 
1800, tribal groups retained distinctive farming communities even as 
they mingled with non-tribal societies and were pushed into the hills. 
Forest tribes and farmers had always flourished in the mountains, 
where they came under attack by the state and its associated agrarian 
interests. To manage conflict in tribal territories, states recognised 
tribal enclaves like the Daman-i-Koh around the Rajmahal Hills in 
Jharkhand; and thus modern tribal enclaves, created by the state, 
became territories for the evolution of modern tribal identities. Battles 
over tribal land arose typically from the aggressive extension of 
property claims by the state, zamindars, farmers, and moneylenders in 
tribal territories that were defined as such both by tribal communities 
and the state. Conflict increased with the rapid expansion of cultiva- 
tion, and, in the nineteenth century, tribal warriors sometimes fought 
to the death for collective independence. 

What we see in all the records of agrarian turmoil is not so much 
broad popular resistance to the colonial imposition of western-style 
private property rights and commodity production as a gradual, 
conflictual invention of new state institutions to enforce private 
property amidst on-going local struggles for entitlement. The new 
state now invested rights legally in individuals rather than in families. 
It defined land as a commodity. This particular form of entitlement 
was indeed a nineteenth-century invention. It became hegemonic as it 
was applied in practice at the intersection of empire and farming 
communities and as state institutions were embedded within agricul- 
ture. Across the nineteenth century, rebellions that demonstrate a 
radically communitarian opposition to private property rights did 
break out during the subjugation of tribal communities, as the expan- 


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sion of lowland farming and state power turned tribal land into private 
property. After 1857, however, agrarian struggles in general ceased to 
be struggles for political autonomy or territorial supremacy. Instead, 
they sought private benefits for individuals, families, and kin groups 
within the framework of state institutions. They focused on everyday 
issues, above all secure possession of land, labour, and capital. Ever 
since, members of farming communities have mobilised publicly 
thousands of times to advance their claims to the many specific 
elements that comprised legal entitlements, such as fair rates of 
taxation and rent, better prices for inputs and outputs, occupancy 
rights, access to roads, forests and temples, and freedom from violence 
at the hands of landlords, state officials, and village patriarchs. 


DEVELOPMENT 


Modern institutions took shape at the higher levels of Company 
authority, in major cities and towns, and gradually worked their way 
down the hierarchy into small towns and villages, where they met 
their local fate. Their personnel concentrated in urban centres on 
routes of trade and administration, and, though historical maps depict 
blocks of territory being added to British India at each phase of 
military expansion, this is misleading because, historically, empire had 
a more linear quality. It spread along routes into the interior, out from 
imperial centres into remote locations. This had important conse- 
quences locally, because earlier sites of Company authority became 
bases for later expansion and remained higher-order centres in hier- 
archies of power. Company revenues and profits first concentrated in 
old centres near the coast. Then the railways connected ports to 
interior centres along lines of commercial investment and commodity 
production, so that sites on the railway became nodes for the expan- 
sion of modern institutions, including law, bureaucracy, police, 
schools, the military, science, industrial technologies, and nationalism. 
The older, bigger colonial centres contained more English people and 
things and they had closer connections with Britain; this enhanced 
their prestige and provided privileges for residents of larger centres. A 
central place hierarchy was built permanently into the geography of 
modernity. The main corridors of empire ran up and down the coast 
from Bombay and Madras, and inland along the railway into Berar, 
Maharashtra, Karnataka, and the Deccan; they ran up from Calcutta 


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across the northern river basins into Punjab and Assam; and they also 
ran up from Karachi and Surat along the Indus basin into Punjab. 
Other interior and upland regions became distant hinterlands. The 
urban corridor from Calcutta to Peshawar held a preponderance of 
imperial personnel and assets; this became the imperial heartland and 
the central zone for state-sponsored agricultural development. The 
imperial scaffold is still visible today in the routes of the main trunk 
lines, in the location of national capitals, and in the central place 
hierarchy, as well as in the geographical distribution of wealth and 
political power. Localities far from the railways are still disadvantaged 
in the flow of goods and services. Lesser towns and villages still 
occupy the hinterland, and the high mountain interior regions still 
remain cultural and political frontiers for the expansion of lowland 
states. By 1900, modern institutions were established throughout the 
agrarian lowlands and were moving into the uplands of the central 
mountains; but their expansion into the higher uplands was slow and 
spotty, and much of the high mountains away from Kashmir, 
Darjeeling, Simla, and Kathmandu remain remote even today. Every 
locality has its own position of rank in modernity’s spatial arrange- 
ment of inequality, and, most importantly, urban-rural divisions are 
marked constituents of modern social identity. 

An appropriate date for the arrival of modernity among farmers, 
pastoralists, and forest dwellers might be the day when the land was 
surveyed, plot-by-plot, drawn into survey maps, and printed in books 
to regulate the allocation of property rights. This activity began in the 
1850s and spread rapidly between 1870 and 1920. The resulting 
records still exist and in addition to property rights they record 
agreements between officers and villagers for the maintenance of 
irrigation works and the protection of local forests. In Punjab, they 
also record the membership of land-owning lineages, and thus vestiges 
of old transactional territories. Everywhere, they record the names of 
landowners and village officers. As these records were being produced, 
the state was also building a vast new network of new canals in Punjab 
and western Uttar Pradesh and a massive bureaucracy for census- 
taking, agricultural surveillance, and other purposes, including the 
regulation of forests. Though forests were not measured internally 
until later, their boundaries had been surveyed by 1920, by which time 
the state had demarcated all the land that it claimed as its own 
property, all the woods, seashores, and riverbeds, drainage runs for 


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irrigation tanks, other uncultivated land not included in pattahs, 
transport rights-of-way, and public space in cities, towns, and villages. 
State regulation of public space had begun long before — by 1800, the 
Company regulated access to land and roads in Madras and Calcutta, 
and in 1850 it could enforce laws that allowed Untouchables to walk 
the streets in district towns like Tirunelveli — but in the 1870s 
government had just begun to enforce its claim to forest land outside 
the reach of lowland farmers. By 1920, public lands had been 
demarcated; and every bit of private property had been surveyed, 
demarcated, and recorded within British India. The state could now 
register (and tax) all legal transfers of real estate. 

After 1870, agrarian citizenship came into being within the agrarian 
polities of British India, and it entailed much more than holding a 
pattah and haggling over land rights and revenue. The orderly 
representation of rural interests became a distinctively modern poli- 
tical power as the state became a managerial institution within 
agriculture, a source of authority in allocations of labour, technologies, 
water, and finance. In the 1880s, District and Local Boards institution- 
alised the role of local notables in the administration and funding of 
state projects that became public activities with a high social profile. 
By this time, many rural men of means were already involved in 
privately funding education, publishing, and public works, and the 
public sphere in the mofussil developed largely with financial support 
from landed families. Government embraced landed interests instinc- 
tively. When agriculture departments invented and propagated new 
seeds, animal breeds, and farming techniques, they concentrated their 
efforts on the most profitable commercial crops, especially sugarcane 
and cotton; and when government built irrigation and promoted co- 
operative societies, the benefits went primarily to commercial produ- 
cers. Ideologically, all these efforts served the public good. Then, in 
the 1870s, murderous cyclones in Bengal (1874) and horrible famines 
in all the semi-arid regions (1876-8) raised the issue of the state’s 
liability for civilian calamity, and British responsibility for public 
health and welfare became a hot topic of public discussion, as Indian 
organisations began to press for official representation in government. 
The scope of state responsibility expanded very quickly, and in 1888 
the Report on the Conditions of the Lower Classes of the Population in 
Bengal (the Dufferin Report) used the first detailed empirical studies 
of 100 sample villages ‘to ascertain whether there is any foundation for 


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the assertion frequently repeated that the greater part of the popula- 
tion of India suffers from a daily insufficiency of food’ (p. 12).!' This 
was a critical moment for the emergence of modern development 
discourse: modern institutions began to mobilise public opinion 
around agrarian issues and urban leaders began to stake their legiti- 
macy on service to a public that was predominantly rural. At this 
point in history, a new question arises: who are those folks, out there 
in the country, who shape political discourse and mobilise the public? 

Developmentalism attained instant cultural hegemony as local 
demands for state investment in agriculture became morally and 
politically compelling in imperial circles. State-sponsored development 
may perhaps be intrinsic for all modern states, even colonial empires, 
because modernity demands progress and makes the state the ultimate 
guarantor of public well-being. Modern political struggles revolve 
around who will be served by the state, what sectors of society are 
most important, and which claims on the exchequer are most urgent. 
By 1880, the spectre of class war had been let loose in Europe and the 
idea was already established that state investments in public welfare 
would stabilise national enterprise; this idea would become increas- 
ingly prominent in the twentieth century. The critique of the negative 
impact of British policy on Indian well-being thus became an elemen- 
tary aspect of Indian nationalism, and the inadequacy of imperial 
development efforts has received considerable academic attention. 
Nationalist critics were surely correct to say that, overall, the British 
drained wealth from India, depressed India’s industrial growth, and 
restricted opportunities for Indian employment and investment 
outside agriculture. Nationalist critics also chided British rulers for 
excessive taxation and inadequate attention to agricultural improve- 
ment. Since 1970, scholars have expanded this critique to include the 
negative ecological impact of railways (which blocked drainage to 
provoke malaria epidemics), canals (which waterlogged the soil to 
produce poisonous salinity), and deforestation (which induced erosion 
and displaced forest people). But many continuities are striking from 
the 1870s to the present day in state efforts to increase aggregate 
agricultural output, expand commodity crop production, and secure 
the profitability of agriculture for investors. State development expen- 


1 Quoted in Willem van Schendel, ‘Economy of the Working Classes’, in Sirajul Islam, 
ed., History of Bangladesh, Dhaka, 1992, vol. 11. p. 528. 


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diture increased after 1870, declined after 1920, and rose to new 
heights after 1947, but all modern states have faced public critics who 
say the state is not doing enough, and all states have publicised and 
praised their own development efforts. From the first famine commis- 
sion report, in 1878, to the latest five-year plan, in 1997, states have 
sought to improve their own public image as developers and they have 
conducted regular inquiries on the cause and extent of development 
problems. 

An assessment of the impact of state development activities is well 
beyond the scope of this book. But some points are relevant. Famine 
was the first policy issue that separated modern development from the 
long history of state-supported agricultural expansion. Prominent 
years of famine mortality clustered in the 1870s, 1880s, and 1890s; 
then again in 1918-19, and again in 1943-4, 1966-7, and 1973-5. All 
these famines (like droughts and cyclones) affected some regions more 
than others and can be considered in the context of other regional 
disparities (about which more below). Until 1920, famine mortality 
clustered in dry regions, especially in the Deccan, western plains, and 
central peninsular. As we will see, these famines must have been 
aggravated by ecological stress and decay in community-financed 
irrigation, some of which was mitigated in later decades. After 1870, 
government invested heavily in irrigation and instituted famine pre- 
vention measures, but government irrigation mostly benefited com- 
mercial farmers and the impact of government activity on reducing 
mortality is unclear. Most new irrigation was built by farmers who 
invested in wells for commercial farming, and, though state famine 
policies may have helped to reduce peaks in mortality, very high levels 
of everyday hunger, mortality, and morbidity continue to plague the 
dry famine zones even today. In the 1940s, 1960s, and 1970s, famine 
and near-famine scarcities hit Bengal, Bihar, and Bangladesh, regions 
that have also been seriously deprived relative to others by modern 
development regimes; here, too, famine struck regions most heavily 
that were most precariously sustained against the vagaries of the 
monsoon, depending on unirrigated winter rice.'? Before 1950, the 
largest government investments in irrigation came to western Uttar 
Pradesh and Punjab, where dividends to the state and to commercial 


12 Malabika Chakravarti, “The Lethal Connection: Winter Rice, Poverty and Famine in 
Late 19th Century Bengal’, Calcutta Historical Journal, 18, 1, 1996, 66-95. 


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interests were high, but there is still an academic debate today as to 
whether the UP canals were, on the whole, counter-productive 
because, in addition to spreading intensive cultivation, they also 
spread malaria and waterlogging. After 1950, disproportionate govern- 
ment irrigation benefits also accrued to western regions. Since 1975, 
there have been no major famines anywhere, and monsoons have been 
better than average. This does not diminish the continued importance 
of public investment, however, which has still not eliminated hunger 
or the threat of mass starvation; and development expenditures have 
still not benefited poor people and poor lands in proportion to their 
share of the total population. 

Development constitutes a more complex historical subject than 
any list of costs and benefits could ever indicate, however, because the 
discourse and practice of development encode a modern state’s 
relationship with its people, and the Dufferin Report suggests imperial 
anxiety at the height of empire over state responsibility for malnutri- 
tion. Though famines can be called natural calamities and poverty can 
be explained away, everyday starvation threatens the legitimacy of a 
modern state. Development anxiety suffuses modernity. Tools have 
been honed to measure the nutritional status, health, wealth, and well- 
being of every individual and the media have broadcast scathing 
attacks on the reputation of rulers based on the implications of their 
policies. As British rule weakened politically after 1920, it became less 
capable of improving local conditions, which weakened it further, and 
nationalists increased their own credibility by attacking government. 
Congress won the loyalty of locally prominent men by convincing 
them that they had much to gain from a Congress regime, beginning 
with lower taxes and rents. The Krishak Praja Party stood for lower 
rents and more secure land tenures in Bengal. No-tax and no-rent 
agitations attracted agrarian support and sketched a blueprint for the 
nation’s relationship with farmers after independence. In the 1940s, 
the Congress and Muslim League formulated plans for national 
development which evolved during depression and war and envisioned 
an even stronger role for the state, and, since 1947, development 
projects have expanded the political base for governments. 

After 1947, populist discourse and far-reaching government activ- 
ities to increase agricultural productivity made development increas- 
ingly egalitarian and democratic. The colonial government had 
nothing like the power of national states today to bring tailor-made 


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packages of technology and inputs to farmers in the village. In 
addition, of course, farmers could not vote before 1947. But conti- 
nuities since 1870 are impressive and are not confined to the proclivity 
of states to build large-scale irrigation dams to bring water to vast 
agricultural tracts from one central source under state control. Devel- 
opment has a firm agrarian base. Under the British, as today, state 
projects to improve agriculture were designed to benefit landowners 
on whom their success depended. William Moreland reflected an 
official agrarian mentality in the British empire when he said that non- 
productive landlords exploited peasants and undermined agriculture. 
This sentiment has been reiterated many times, and in 1940 even the 
Tenancy Committee in Hyderabad argued that giving more land and 
finance to peasants would serve economic as well as political ends.'? 
Thomas Munro and Henry Lawrence had also argued that, to improve 
agriculture, the state must invest in its farmers. 

The discourse and institutions of agricultural development made a 
place for farmers (also called agriculturists) — as distinct from land- 
owners — in the modern state. Because states need to mobilise social 
power to increase production, they need farmers who can use their 
own private means to supplement state expenditure effectively. For 
Munro, mobilising the peasantry simply meant keeping taxes low, 
eliminating speculative middlemen, and securing private property, all 
of which, he argued, would encourage investment. By the 1850s, more 
ambitious arguments for state-sponsored irrigation had taken hold. To 
increase its revenue, proponents argued, government should build new 
irrigation to open new, more valuable, secure cultivation. Early state 
projects in the Kaveri and Krishna—Godavari deltas showed that 
investments could bring the promised revenues; and later famines gave 
the state other reasons to invest in irrigation. Huge irrigation works 
were installed in Maharashtra, Uttar Pradesh, and Punjab, as ancient 
morals took modern form. The Tamil poet advised the Pandya king to 
expand irrigation, and the modern state also needs to spread water 
upon the land. To repay its investments, the state needs revenues; and 
families who most directly profit from state investments, who 
combine land, labour, and capital to increase production, are best able 
to repay the state. These same people are the leaders of their commu- 
nities. Agrarian patriarchs have authority and political connections. In 


13 Barry Pavier, The Telengana Movement, 1944-1951, Delhi, 1981, pp. 11-12. 


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the nineteenth century, old political imperatives which had long 
compelled rulers to grant wealth and authority to powerful local men 
were thus joined with development ideas within a framework of 
private property to form a new kind of agrarian citizen, the farmer 
who invests in his land. This new citizen would displace his predeces- 
sors, the village landowner and landlord, when the old gentry drifted 
away from agriculture into urban occupations during the twentieth 
century. 

Local power influenced development policy and its impact. Local 
resistance made it costly to raise tax rates on old farmland, and even 
nominal increases were minimal after 1870, as inflation reduced the 
real value of taxes and new state revenues came primarily from sources 
other than land, such as stamps, fees, and duties. After the early 
settlements, new land taxes had come primarily from new cultivation, 
from formerly ‘concealed cultivation’, and from increasing assessments 
on land pegged to its increasing value. Local resistance to any kind of 
tax increase became more and more public until, by 1920, taxes were 
the central issue in Congress agitations in prosperous farm regions, 
most famously, in Gujarat. Demonstrators shouted that the state must 
hear the farmers’ complaints and redress grievances, a demand with a 
long pedigree, not so much in Delhi and London as in provincial and 
district headquarters. Provincial regulations concerning inheritance, 
land alienation, debt recovery, and tenancy multiplied after 1870 to 
strengthen people who invested directly in farming, which benefited 
the well-endowed farmers in ryotwari tracts and many tenants in 
zamindari regions. 

The impact of state policy on landlordism became more and more 
ambiguous. The British government remained committed to landlord 
property to the end, but zamindari estates also obstructed the increase 
of modern state power and revenue, and peasants became the best 
investment for government on political and economic grounds. On 
permanently settled land, state revenue increases were out of the 
question, and new cultivation was hard to locate and tax on zamindari 
estates. Legally and politically, therefore, though government sup- 
ported zamindars, talukdars, and malguzars, tenancy legislation and 
the expansion of police jurisdictions, forest controls, and other official 
interventions into zamindari estates undermined zamindari autonomy. 
Zamindars were among the greatest beneficiaries of irrigation works in 
the Krishna—Godavari basin, and Ganga canals enriched talukdars in 


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Awadh. Government had no qualms about investing in zamindari 
areas to expand new cultivation, even though this had the effect of 
increasing landlord power, to the chagrin of people like William 
Moreland, who pointed out that zamindars did not invest very much 
in farming. Overall, however, government did not invest much in any 
of the permanently settled regions. The majority of zamindars raised 
most of their income from rent and money lending, keeping their 
distance from farming; and by the twentieth century we see a general 
movement of landlord income away from farming. Zamindars’ chil- 
dren moved to the city to pursue education, employment, and profes- 
sional careers. This trend was most important for Calcutta, where 
zamindari descendants, heirs, employees, and representatives — many 
impoverished as the generations passed — filled the ranks of the 
bhadralok (the respectable people of the middle classes). Some of the 
early nationalists who came from this milieu, like R. C. Dutt, criticised 
the British for undermining zamindari property rights, while other 
nationalists pushed for tenant rights. Conflicting interests in the 
political culture of zamindari thus entered modern politics, and the 
ambiguity of British policy toward zamindars echoed among national- 
ists who sought political support from zamindars and tenants at the 
same time. 

State investments nurtured localities of expanding commercial culti- 
vation along routes of imperial expansion. Development became 
synonymous with empire. Big cities along the railway grew faster than 
smaller cities and towns, and areas well endowed with huge state 
irrigation advanced rapidly over others. These two factors combined 
to increase regional wealth in Punjab and western Uttar Pradesh 
compared with old imperial territories in Bihar and Bengal. Towns 
boomed in the cotton-growing and sugar-farming irrigated tracts in 
Gujarat, Maharashtra, and along the Tamil coast, in contrast to regions 
of declining tank irrigation in the driest parts of the Deccan, Rayala- 
seema, Bihar, and Bengal. Ecological distress became most visible in 
the driest Deccan districts, as lush new irrigated colonies were opening 
up in Punjab and western UP. In 1911, the shift of the imperial capital 
from Calcutta to Delhi symbolised a long movement of imperial 
investment. Modernity’s most politically and economically powerful 
agrarian macro-region in South Asia expanded across Punjab, 
Haryana, Rajasthan, Gujarat, and western UP; it has been consistently 
favoured by state investments relative to other regions since 1870. 


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As agrarian regions acquired economic identities, the mobilisation 
of power on farms became more intricately entangled with the urban 
public sphere. Local conflicts involving landlords, tenants, rural 
financiers, farmers, and government officials moved from village to 
town as fast as rumour. Debates in London and decisions in capitals 
travelled to distant villages with a telegram. Regions of agrarian 
politics centred on district headquarters and provincial capitals. After 
the Deccan Riots Commission published its report in 1878, laws were 
passed to protect landowners against foreclosure, and governments 
used the registration bureaucracy to prevent the transfer of land to 
non-farming moneylenders. Tenancy laws were passed to regulate the 
rights of farmers in zamindari estates. State officials sought to protect 
the property of plantation owners, ryots, tenants, and zamindars, and 
these property rights often conflicted with one another as well as with 
the rights of tribal groups and even of the state itself. 

There was no single imperial intelligence to guide government 
activity in all these conflicts, and agrarian polities emerged during the 
formulation of provincial solutions to local problems. The state drew 
lines around tribal forests to facilitate direct administration, creating 
separate political territories, while regional polities developed around 
the administrative centres in which the middle classes settled and 
landowners invested. In 1883, for instance, Krishna—Godavari irriga- 
tion effectively irrigated 24,592 double-cropped acres, and, by 1897, 
double-cropping covered 163,481 acres, enriching zamindars, ryots, 
and bankers and business families, who invested in towns. Territories 
that benefited most from state investments saw the fastest growth of 
middle-class activity, and, in 1881, 241 vakils worked in Godavari 
District, more than in Madras, the provincial capital.'* As agricultural 
labourers became urban workers, they often moved back and forth 
from city to village from season to season; and it seems that smaller 
towns had an edge in the expansion of non-farm employment, 
especially along the railway, where towns became entrepots for the 
agrarian hinterlands. The circulation of capital between town and 
villages produced a critical and often conflictual power relationship 
between finance and farming, which preoccupied the modern state 


14 G. A. L. Satyarani, ‘Commercialization of Agriculture and its Impact on the Socio- 
Political Awakening in the Godavari and Krishna Districts of the Madras Presidency, ap 
1858-1914’, Ph.D. dissertation, Indian Institute of Technology, Madras, 1989, pp. 295-7. 


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because of its importance for economic development and political 
stability. 

Politically, only the biggest cities were important at the imperial 
level, but, regionally, every major town had a middle class that 
performed mediating roles between farmers, the state, and commodity 
markets, as teachers, lawyers, bankers, brokers, investors, merchants, 
technical experts, and officers in state agencies dealing with roads, 
railways, forests, medicine, construction, irrigation, plantations, 
mining, and eventually hydro-electric power and other projects. The 
size and influence of the middle class grew with state penetration into 
agriculture; locally, every state activity generated political feedback 
into urban centres. The reservation of forests, for instance, produced 
countless law suits by zamindars who claimed forest lands on the 
borders of their estates: middle-class bureaucrats, lawyers, and za- 
mindar sons and retainers were involved in these conflicts — on all 
sides — in towns and cities. Resistance to the plot-by-plot measurement 
of village lands was localised but widespread, and politically most 
visible in zamindari estates, where tenant land rights undermined 
zamindari power. In Bengal, the boundaries of villages had been 
matters of local custom until the surveys of the 1860s. In Bihar, 
zamindars blocked state surveys of tenant lands, and in Uttar Pradesh 
and elsewhere surveys moved along slowly and unevenly, encouraged 
and stymied according to the relative influence of zamindars and 
tenants. Every agrarian dispute rippled into town. In the 1840s, the 
Calcutta intelligentsia debated what to do about distress in the indigo 
fields. Taxpayers’ associations multiplied. In the 1870s, the govern- 
ment created District and Local Boards to advise Collectors on local 
policies. Regional agrarian polities thus developed as territories of 
political interaction around agricultural communities, mediating their 
entanglement with the imperial state. 


MOBILISATION 


By 1900, agrarian polities had emerged from the combination of 
modern state institutions and local struggles over land, labour, and 
finance. These territories of social power and mobilisation have been 
submerged in historical writing by imperial and national trends, but 
they form the basic geography of agrarian political economy and 
culture in the twentieth century. Constituted legally in land settle- 


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ments and politically by administrative boundaries, they took shape 
during the long closure of agricultural frontiers, as locally dominant 
landed groups and their opponents and competitors acquired profes- 
sional and political support in the public sphere. Expanding urban 
economies provided new frontiers for rural ambition and for labour 
mobility as the world economy and the imperial state extended their 
powers over agrarian resources through urban centres. Social power 
and strife in the villages travelled to town as urban influence radiated 
outward into the countryside, creating distinctive political cultures 
overlaid by imperial and national politics. National politicians needed 
regional allies who needed local bases of support, and local movements 
worked their way up the political system. As Charan Singh knew very 
well, local agitations could become mass movements that could 
challenge national elites, and, after 1920, loud calls for radical change 
became frequent and insistent. They came from all levels of society. 
The British had incorporated influential landowners into their early 
settlements, but the subsequent expansion of agriculture and com- 
modity production changed power equations dramatically in every 
locality. By 1920, Congress leaders faced many conflicting interest 
groups in every region and sought to incorporate them all into a single 
national project. But each agrarian polity imbued ‘the nation’ and 
‘independence’ with its own distinctive meanings. 

Punjab is the best known agrarian polity because particularly tight 
connections developed there between the state and farmers. A Punjab 
school of colonial policy took hold after annexation in 1849 and, 
during settlements, officials codified local powers vested in the 
community of village landowners. Officially, the Punjab village 
became a proprietary body composed of land-owning lineages. Ad- 
ministrators endeavoured to reach agreements about the limits of 
villages to ascertain the frontiers of agricultural expansion at the time 
of the settlement, because here, as elsewhere, the state claimed all the 
land on which taxes were not paid and villagers also claimed the 
woods, grazing land, and cleared land surrounding their fields, which 
they gleaned for fuel, fodder, water, and food. By paying taxes on 
farmland, farmers could avoid state expropriation and use the state to 
support their own claims to land. By clearing new land for farming, 
they could establish new rights and perhaps avoid taxes until a new 
official survey was undertaken. The incentives for expanding cultiva- 
tion onto new ground produced many local conflicts as the claims of 


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farmers clashed with one another, as farm communities claimed the 
land of pastoralists and forest cultivators, and as the state, zamindars, 
tenants, and ryots asserted rights to newly cultivated land. The cultural 
character of villages in Punjab changed as collective arrangements for 
local defence became unnecessary and as the joint interests of lineages 
came to focus instead on privatising family control over land and 
labour. Weaker families could secure their rights against stronger 
neighbours by acquiring private property rights, even though collec- 
tive village resource sharing did benefit weaker community members 
by spreading the cost of crop failures and protecting the village 
commons. Stronger landowners also benefited from community re- 
source sharing, but they also had the most to gain by establishing 
exclusive rights to the most valuable village land. Village headmen and 
zamindars could use their local authority and official position to 
increase their private land holdings by hiring labour to bring more 
land under their personal cultivation. There were thus good reasons 
for rich and poor landed families alike to value both community 
solidarity and individual property, and, in Punjab and elsewhere, 
solidarities among dominant families enforced their individual privati- 
sation of landed property. 

As Jat lineages expanded family control over agricultural territory, 
their sons became prime recruits for the imperial army. This made 
Punjab even more politically important and brought more public 
investment and military salaries and pensions into the country. 
Starting in 1887, irrigation along the Chenab river opened new lands 
to intensive cultivation in state-run canal colonies, and Punjab became 
the most prolific regional exporter of agricultural produce, which it 
remains today. Jat farm enterprise supported the power of lineages, 
and vice versa, in agrarian territories that received more state attention, 
finance, and intervention than any other. The combination of Jat 
family farming, lineage political organisation, and state intervention in 
agriculture produced a booming regional economy and an agrarian 
polity characterised by militant collective action by land-owning 
lineages. 

Initially, in each village, settlement officers had parcelled out rights 
to individual farms, collective ‘common lands’, and external lands used 
by pastoral peoples; in doing so, Punjab administrators produced new 
village proprietary groups by lumping together lineages even when 
they had no previous relations to one another. Early land administra- 


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tion thus encouraged local alliances across lineages, based on village 
entitlements; and, despite the official collectivity of the Punjab village, 
Punjab landowners had privatised all the commons by 1900. Govern- 
ment canal colonies became the first modern plan for agricultural 
expansion that involved the large-scale relocation of farmers and 
creation of new farm communities. This kind of state-planned agrarian 
colonisation has been accomplished many times since, in different 
parts of the world, and it always creates communities that live and 
work in unusually close quarters with state bureaucracies. In Punjab, 
canal colony farmers were also beneficiaries of state policies to 
support dominant caste groups who were critical in the military. 
Moving loyal, productive families into new frontiers of farming was 
intended not only to increase agricultural production but to expand 
the Punjab political system, as the state pushed more deeply into 
Punjab community life. Individual farm plots granted in the colonies 
were very large and provided ample scope for investment and family 
expansion, in return for relatively low rents. By 1897, along the Rakh 
and Mian branches of the Chenab Canal, the Punjab government had 
granted 341,998 acres to officially defined ‘peasant’ families who 
owned one square of about 27 acres each; 30,473 acres to ‘capitalist’ 
farmers holding from five to one hundred squares; 36,630 acres to 
‘yeomen’ farmers with up to three squares; and 6,313 acres to 
‘military’ grantees holding up to three squares.'? These grants echoed 
the political logic of old land grants to temples and mosques. They 
also subsidised a rapid growth in the area of farmland planted with 
food and fodder crops, which further hastened the disappearance of 
common lands for grazing. In the Fazilka canal tract, cultivation 
expanded 48 per cent between 1886 and 1897 and the number of cattle 
almost doubled. Everywhere in Punjab, commons land (shamilat) had 
gone into private hands even before legal privatisation because 
powerful families would take possession of valuable portions as the 
village paid the revenue. As irrigation, cotton, and sugarcane spread 
over the land, ‘the traditional pattern of land-use and institutional 


order inevitably changed under the impact of increased cultivation’.'° 


15 N. Gerald Barrier, “The Punjab Disturbances of 1907: The Response of the British 
Government of India to Agrarian Unrest’, in Hardiman, Peasant Resistance, p. 231. 

16 Minoti Chakravarty-Kaul, Common Lands and Customary Law: Institutional Change 
in North India over the Past Two Centuries, Delhi, 1996, p. 120; also pp. 68, 89, 104, 112, 
and 118. 


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By 1900, Punjab agriculture had become a serious state concern. 
More state investments justified more state control, and the Punjab 
Land Alienation Act prohibited the sale of land or its transfer in 
foreclosure to anyone who did not belong to an ‘agricultural tribe’. 
The state defined ethnic divisions by religion and caste with its census 
operations and ethnographic surveys; and now it used these divisions 
to regulate credit markets. The purpose of this legislation was to keep 
land in the hands of families who had a racially coded capacity for 
farming, but it also institutionalised ethnic identities and solidarities 
among dominant caste lineages. Families passed land from one genera- 
tion to another, and, likewise, military honour ran in families. Rituals 
and genealogies recorded at temples, shrines, and gurudwaras (Sikh 
temples) defined lineages. Now descent and ethnicity also became the 
basis for participation in land and credit markets. Urban groups 
protested their exclusion and this opened a political split between 
farming and commercial interests defined officially by caste, tribe, and 
religion. During the nationalist movement, these divisions were 
mapped onto political oppositions between Muslim farmers and 
Hindu merchants in the western districts, as financial wealth accumu- 
lated within the Muslim ‘agricultural tribes’. Tight connections 
between farming and state administration, especially in the canal 
colonies, also made everyday farming more inherently political in 
Punjab than anywhere else. As the Chenab colonies were filling up, 
bureaucrats tightened their control over access to land, and, in 1907, 
protesters confronted the state in demonstrations that attracted the 
attention of Lajpat Rai, the head of the Arya Samaj. His participation 
at a Lyallpur meeting punctuated a long modern history of entangle- 
ments between urban nationalists, religious reformers, and agrarian 
interests, which runs down through the rise of the Akali Dal and the 
Muslim League, the Partition of British India in 1947, and the 
subsequent demands for a separate Haryana and independent Khali- 
stan. In Punjab, the meaning of the nation was suffused with solida- 
rities among dominant farming castes, above all, Jats, and the cry for 
independence has been repeatedly raised to carve out territories within 
which state power and Jat family power might be more effectively 
combined. Since 1906, the mobilisation of religious identities has 
endeavoured to harmonise the disparate interests of rustic farmers, 
urban financiers, and professionals within communal solidarities, as 
Muslim, Hindu, and Sikh political movements have produced separate 


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state territories in the Indian Punjab, Pakistani Punjab, and Indian 
state of Haryana.'” 

Farmers in the old Punjab now live in separate polities, carved by 
state and national boundaries. In each, the politics of lineage power 
produced an ethnically and religiously defined agrarian citizenry. Title 
to land is legal but also genealogical, enforced by states but also by the 
lineages. The green revolution and national planning have accentuated 
state interests in agriculture and provoked political movements whose 
strength is augmented by the fact that Punjab produces critical food 
supplies for India and Pakistan. In 1992, Punjab and Haryana together 
held 9 per cent of India’s population, 8 per cent of its cultivated 
acreage, and 17 per cent of its food grain. In India, only Punjab and 
Haryana have large food crop surpluses to export to other states: 
Punjab has proportionately six times as much food as it has people, 
and Haryana three times. Their food stores sustain India’s food 
security. Since 1960, Punjab and Haryana have also had the highest 
growth rate in the value of their overall agricultural produce (at 4.89 
per cent and 4.14 per cent, respectively), though recent evidence 
indicates a relative decline since the 1980s (and serious trouble in parts 
of Punjab, as a result of waterlogging).'® In addition, very substantial 
farmers own this prime farmland. In India as a whole, 73 per cent of 
all farmers work holdings of less than 1 hectare. In Punjab, this figure 
is 45 per cent, and in Haryana, 61 per cent.'? Here we also find an 
agrarian culture dominated by aggressively capitalist owner-cultiva- 
tors, the backbone of the green revolution in India and Pakistan, and 
some of the most successful farmers are now mobilised for globalisa- 
tion. Gurpeet Khehra is one of these agro-tycoons. Thirty-three years 
old, with a Ph.D. in tissue culture from Britain, he invested Rs 400,000 
in Israeli drip irrigation and received Rs 2 million in 1997 from crop 
sales and research fees. He grows strawberries on 50 acres, raises 
vegetables for export and plans to buy a fast-food franchise and build 
a Rs 7.5 million research laboratory. Other tycoons have bigger farms: 


17 K. L. Tuteja, “The Punjab Hindu Sabha and Communal Politics’, in Indu Banga, ed., 
Five Punjabi Centuries: Policy, Economy, Society and Culture, c.1500-1990. Essays for J. S. 
Grewal, Delhi, 1997, pp. 126-40. 

18 Statistics from Government of India, Area and Production of Principal Crops in India 
(various years), Ministry of Agriculture, New Delhi. See also Bharat Ahluwalia, “Land of 
Five Tears’, Outlook, 4, 51, 28 December 1998, 47-51. 

19 Amita Shah, ‘Food Security and Access to Natural Resources: A Review of Recent 
Trends’, Economic and Political Weekly, 32, 26, 28 June 1997, A46—54. 


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J. B. S. Sangha, for instance, has 6,000 acres under potatoes; and A. S. 
Dhinda, has 700 acres of flowers, which yield 70 tonnes of seed and 
half a million dollars in export earnings to the United States.”° 

Poor Biharis work on rich Punjabi farms. As Punjab exports food, 
Bihar exports hunger. In Ludhiana and Hoshiarpur districts in 1981, 
researchers counted over 400,000 farm workers who had come from 
northern Bihar districts, almost all members of low castes. Workers 
also came from tribal Chota Nagpur, where recruiters had gone to 
bring them for the employers who bid for them at auction. Though 
this illegal trade had ceased by 1991, rich Punjabi farmers were still 
advancing huge sums to bring Biharis to work in their fields; when 
official investigations found some workers being held in bondage, 
they were released to local authorities.”! 

In all other regions, too, agrarian ethnicities have been attached to 
the land, and symbols of class and social status have formed the 
regional vocabularies of agrarian politics. State-defined property rights 
are culturally charged, and entitlements to resources adorn individuals 
and families like regalia. Legal and administrative codes enhanced and 
institutionalised the social value of symbols of respect and honour by 
inscribing local ranks of status into the everyday operation of the 
state. Individuals and families have long gained access to the means of 
production by social alliances celebrated in rituals — above all, marriage 
— that reproduce social power in dialects of ethnicity, jati, varna, and 
sect. Combining land, labour, and finance in agriculture still depends 
on the accumulation of symbolic assets. The modern state intervened 
by legalising customs in civil law; by codifying castes and tribes; by 
enumerating population according to ethnic categories of race, tribe, 
caste, and religion; by measuring social conditions and stereotyping 
groups by ethnic category, so that Jats, for instance, officially became 
the best farmers in India, and Muslims and Hindus are always 
opposed to one another in government discourse; and by creating 
ethnic entitlements within the state itself, sometimes officially, as in 
the case of Sikh regiments in the army, and sometimes tacitly, as in the 
case of the vast Brahman corps of bureaucrats and state intellectuals. 
As employer, patron, and supreme arbiter of social status and entitle- 


20 Ramesh Vinayak, ‘Futuristic Farmers’, India Today, 1 June 1998, 39-42. 

21 Manjit Singh, “Bonded Migrant Labour in Punjab Agriculture’, Economic and Political 
Weekly, 32, 11, 1997, 518-19; and see Manjit Singh, Uneven Development in Agriculture 
and Labour Migration: A Case of Bihar and Punjab, Shimla, 1995. 


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ment, the state became the master institution for the production, 
regulation, and accumulation of cultural capital as it increased its 
material power over economic and social mobility. Brahmans became 
prominent everywhere in higher education, administration, law, en- 
gineering, medicine, sciences, and journalism, and also in the Indian 
National Congress, along with a few other high-caste groups, in- 
cluding Kayasths and Baniyas. In effect, the British became an imperial 
caste, marrying among themselves, living in their own settlements, 
dressing alike, and eating together. Brahmans became the national 
caste in British India. 

Every region developed its own particular set of politically impor- 
tant groups; its own cultural profile of social rank, dominance, and 
conflict; its own ethnic flavour, reflected in its cuisine, crafts, dialects, 
and voting patterns. Medieval core territories in the northern basins in 
Uttar Pradesh and Bihar had the highest percentage of Brahmans at 
every level in agrarian society. Today, Uttar Pradesh contains 40 per 
cent of all the Brahmans in India. Before 1950, Brahmans, Muslims, 
and Rajputs were the great zamindars and talukdars of central and 
eastern UP. Rajputs, Brahmans, and Bhumihars ruled agrarian Bihar. 
Beneath their dominance, Goala (Ahir), Kurmi, and Lodis were 
prominent tenants and farmers all along the Ganga basin. In western 
UP, Rajasthan, Malwa, and the Central Provinces of British India, the 
Brahman, Jat, Rajput, Maratha, and Muslim rajas and zamindars each 
had their own tracts. The Bengali bhadralok came from the respectable 
classes of high-caste zamindars and their retainers, from estates where 
tenants were Muslims and middle-caste farmers, who in turn had 
lower-status landless workers under them in the villages. Three major 
tenant castes dominated localities in nineteenth-century West Bengal: 
Sadgop, Kaibartta, and Aguri. They had colonised their territories 
before Permanent Settlement, and in the twentieth century their power 
was challenged by upwardly mobile caste groups (Mayra, Chasad- 
hoba, Jogi, Namasudra, and Pod).?? The urban homes of the bha- 
dralok and the factories in Calcutta obtained low-caste Bihari workers 
from the countryside. In Assam, the Ahom, Koch, Kalita, and 
Rajbangshi had their territories and faced waves of immigrant Ben- 
galis. Meanwhile, Gujarati Kunbis, Maratha Kunbis, Malayali Nayars, 


22 Sekhar Bandyopadhyay, ‘Caste, Class, and Census: Aspects of Social Mobility in 


Bengal under the Raj, 1872-1931’, Calcutta Historical Journal, 5, 2, 1981, 93-123. 


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Telugu Kammas, Kapus, and Reddys; Kannadiga Vokkaligas, Lin- 
gayats, and Boyas; and Tamil Vanniyas, Vellalas, Kallars, and Maravas — 
and all the other dominant farming castes — had their own local 
territories in regions over which a tiny population of Brahmans held the 
highest positions in native society under British rule. In Native States, 
ruling families and allies formed ethnic elites, some very small, like the 
Muslim dynasty in Hyderabad and Hindu rulers in Kashmir. 

The public pronouncement of the name, population, and status of 
each group became a feature of its social identity within the territory 
of the modern state, particularly during census operations.** From the 
first imperial census, in 1871, social movements emerged in which 
culturally subordinate groups made claims to higher social status and 
at the same time to superior entitlements under the protection of the 
state. Directed particularly against the supremacy of the British, Brah- 
mans, and Rajputs, social movements sought to raise the status of 
lower-ranked groups and to eliminate disabilities that came with their 
lower status, such as exclusion from temples, universities, and public 
office. These movements had much in common with the group pursuit 
of social mobility in earlier centuries.2* But commercialisation and 
urbanisation fuelled many new kinds of mobility and the modern state 
opened new institutional possibilities. An early example comes from 
1850, when low-caste workers moved into Tirunelveli more frequently 
and their mobility challenged high-caste control over urban space. 
When battles broke out over Pariah funeral processions, the military 
stepped in to enforce public access to the streets.?? The modern state 
acquired powers to regulate access to land, roads, temples, water, 
electricity, sanitation, education, and a great many other resources; 
and to coerce and protect people almost everywhere in society. 
Modern social movements were thus directed at the state, seeking 
official recognition, protection, and the improvement of group status 


23 The last official counting of castes was in 1931. See Census of India, 1931, vol. 1, part 2, 
Imperial Tables, table XVI, ‘Race, Caste, Tribe’. Joseph E. Schwartzberg, Historical Atlas of 
South Asia, Chicago, 1978, p. 108, has excellent maps of 1931 census data; so does S. P. 
Chatterjee, Bengal in Maps: A Geographical Analysis of Resource Distribution in West 
Bengal and Eastern Pakistan, Bombay, 1959. 

24 Hitesranjan Sanyal, ‘Continuities of Social Mobility in Traditional and Modern Society 
in India: Two Case Studies of Caste Mobility in Bengal’, Journal of Asian Studies, February, 
1971, 315—39- 

25 Robert E. Frykenberg, ‘On Roads and Riots in Tinnevelly: Radical Change and 
Ideology in Madras Presidency during the Nineteenth Century’, South Asia, 4, 2, 1982, 
34-§2. 


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and entitlements. They reflect changing social relations and also the 
changing character of the state, whose elites can use public force in 
various ways. These movements have often involved serious social 
conflict, and, in British India, regional systems of order and conflict 
created political environments within which various versions of 
nationalism developed. Some of these local conflicts have received 
wide attention — for example, the breast cloth controversy in Kerala, 
the cow protection movement in Uttar Pradesh, Kshatriya movements 
in Gujarat and Bihar, and temple entry movements in Tamil Nadu — 
but they all have local idioms and specific ethnic contexts attached to 
the land. Many revolve around religious institutions and include 
theology, sectarianism, and mass devotion, which give agrarian polities 
like Punjab an air of exalted passion. Among low castes and especially 
Untouchables, conversions to Christianity, Islam, and Buddhism 
expressed social movements against upper-caste dharma. In 1900, a 
prominent Brahman official in Madras, S. Srivinasa Raghava Atyangar, 
reported officially that Pariahs could make no progress without 
leaving Hinduism,”° and at the end of his life B. R. Ambedkar came to 
the same conclusion, launching a Buddhist movement which has 
remained strong among Dalits in Maharashtra. In Punjab, Mangoo 
Ram led the Ad Dharm movement to liberate Untouchables within a 
Hindu sectarian framework. 

As in Punjab, elsewhere too, environments and ecologies also 
changed dramatically as farmers pushed agriculture to the limit. In the 
Maratha Deccan, registered cultivation increased 67 per cent from the 
1840s to the 1870s, with many taluks showing rates of increase over 
100 per cent and a few over 200 per cent. Population growth also 
accelerated after 1820 but registered farmland grew at annual rates 
running from 2 per cent to 9 per cent, indicating a drive to bring land 
under the plough and to pay for its ownership. Prices for cotton 
soared in 1860, which further encouraged ploughing, planting, and 
property acquisition. This resulted in a substantial increase in loan 
activity, farm debt, and conflicts over land, both among farmers and 
between farmers and financiers. Many precarious dry farms came into 
being as poor farming families ploughed up marginal land with bad 
soil in areas of low rainfall. In the Deccan, water for new well 


26 G, Aloysius, Religion as Emancipatory Identity: A Buddhist Movement among the 


Tamils under Colonialism, New Delhi, 1998, p. 197. 


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irrigation lay deep in rock and could be tapped only with a consider- 
able investment. Without irrigation, on the old margins of cultivation, 
land was rapidly desiccated by exhaustive cotton crops and hungry 
herds, especially goats. As a result, the cotton boom ended abruptly in 
Khandesh and proved temporary in much of the Deccan. Already in 
the 1830s, officials had warned that high taxes on poor lands were 
forcing farmers to assume debts that they would not be able to repay 
during inevitable bad years of drought and/or depression. After 1850, 
debt caused many conflicts. In two districts in western Khandesh 
(Poona and Ahmadnagar) between 1851 and 1865, the annual number 
of court disputes over land rose from 98 to 689 and from 75 to 632, 
respectively. In 1875, when a combination of a price slump and 
drought hit these districts, Maratha farmers attacked Marwari money- 
lenders, tearing up their debt agreements. (Perhaps they had heard 
about the Mahadev Kolis who had cut off Marwari noses and burned 
account books along with moneylender houses in 1872.)*” After the 
1875 riots, the rains failed, and in 1876-7 famine struck. Virtually 
every Deccan district suffered massive mortality, but the Famine 
Commission found that landless labourers, artisans, and poor tenant 
farmers died in the highest proportion. The victims of starvation were 
thus not the militant Maratha farmers who had attacked Marwari 
bankers during the Deccan riots, but rather poor people who had been 
deprived of entitlements during the privatisation of village land as the 
sorely indebted Maratha farmers expanded their holdings. Similar crop 
failures had occurred in 1824-5 and 1832-3, when government had 
provided no relief, but famine came in 1877 because the local safety 
net had disappeared which had previously been provided by village 
common lands, by hereditary family rights in villages, and by open 
lands outside village control. The animal population dropped as open 
land was lost to grazing. Herders went to the hills and drought killed 
animals in large numbers. The 1877 famine emerged from a combina- 
tion of price slump, crop failure, and animal death that killed local 
demand for labourers and artisans, cutting exchange entitlements to 
food for people without land to feed their families.78 


27 David Hardiman, ‘Community, Patriarchy, Honour: Raghu Bhanagre’s Revolt’, 
Journal of Peasant Studies, 23, 1, 1995, 88—9. For more detail on Deccan riots, see David 
Hardiman, Feeding the Baniya: Peasants and Usurers in Western India, Delhi, 1996, 
pp. 202-20. 

28 Sumit Guha, The Agrarian Economy of the Bombay Deccan, 1818-1941, Delhi, 1985, 
PP- 56-9, 66, 70-2. 


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Between 1876 and 1878, one quarter of the population also died in 
Bellary District. The semi-arid peninsula — from Gujarat across Berar 
and Khandesh and throughout Telangana, Karnataka, Andhra, and the 
Tamil coast — had begun to feel the ecological and social costs of the 
race to privatise land and to expand cash cropping. Farmers continued 
to cut down trees and scrub, pushing tribal farmers and herders into 
the hills, privatising control over food, fodder, fuel, and raw materials, 
as competition for land and struggles for income confronted the limits 
of the land. In this agrarian landscape, a prosperous farm locality 
required ample supplies of water to compensate for the meagre, fickle 
monsoon, and farmers needed financing to bring land, labour, and 
water together. Stable irrigation represented solid investments, and, in 
Gujarat, private wells and government dams multiplied along routes of 
drainage and across the extensive water table, producing a substantial 
class of Gujarati Kunbi farmers who became the heart of the Congress 
agitation in the region. Even where water was not available, farms 
multiplied and landed property increased in social value beyond what 
might seem rational on economic grounds. In 1926, Harold Mann 
described ‘land hunger’ in the Deccan to the Royal Commission on 
Agriculture by saying, “The man would rather get Rs. 10/- a month by 
cultivating his own plot, rather than getting Rs.15/- a month and work 
for somebody else.’?? Farming was a matter of honour and power for 
peasant patriarchs, and even a small bit of land that paid low economic 
returns could provide more subsistence stability than agricultural 
labour. Owning some land maintains family status for marriage 
alliances within the landed castes. Even small amounts of poor land 
can provide some subsistence and collateral, so that poor peasant 
families would logically work marginal lands very hard to sustain 
themselves and to pay off their loans by selling cash crops. In the dry 
peninsula, the overall expansion of cultivation was driven substantially 
by such poor peasant families; they provided a huge aggregate demand 
for rural credit and they produced a large proportion of the cash crops 
that went to market, particularly cotton, groundnuts, oilseeds, castor, 
linseed, and sesame.*° 


29 Sumit Guha, Agrarian Economy, p. 155. 

3° David Washbrook, ‘The Commercialization of Agriculture in Colonial India: Produc- 
tion, Subsistence and Reproduction in the “Dry South”, c. 1870-1930’, Modern Asian 
Studies, 28, 1, 1994, 129-64; Sumit Guha, ‘Family Structures, Property Relations and the 
Agrarian Economy of the Bombay Presidency’, Journal of Peasant Studies, 20, 3, 1993, 
151-70. 


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Today, in the dry peninsula interior — from eastern Maharashtra, 
Berar, and old Vidarbha in the north, to Rayalaseema in the south — 
the limitation of the green revolution to irrigated land is most 
apparent, the contrast with prosperous Punjab could not be greater, 
and the pride of the peasant patriarch can turn tragic. In 1997-8, 200 
poor farmers, burdened with huge debts in order to plant cash crops 
(mostly cotton, but also pulses), committed suicide when faced with 
crop failure, foreclosure, and destitution.*! In the first three months of 
1998, twenty farmers killed themselves in the northern Karnataka 
districts of Bidar, Raichur, Gulbarga, and Dharwad, where tur dal 
prices had been booming since 1990. Prices crashed in 1997, sending 
many farmers to the moneylenders, and then heavy commitments of 
new debt and of leasing in new land for expanded cultivation met 
drought, floods, and pests, which killed the crop.*? These farmers and 
fathers of small children usually kill themselves by drinking pesticide, 
a symbol of a green revolution that left them behind. 

Juxtapositions of growth and decline, wealth and poverty, vigour 
and sickness, became typical of modern agrarian landscapes. Central 
sites of agrarian power developed around places of capital accumula- 
tion, commercial expansion, and new irrigation. Taking a broad, 
aggregate perspective, we can see a steady growth of urban sites along 
railways and at ports; these became the expansive core of agrarian 
polities and their prominence increased steadily in the twentieth 
century. Among regions, Punjab is a growth region above all others, 
from the later decades of the nineteenth century to the present, 
followed by western Uttar Pradesh, adjacent Rajasthan, and Gujarat, 
which have caught up with Punjab since the 1970s. Already in the 
1920s, observers had noted the contrast of this region’s growth with 
relative decline in Bengal and Bihar; it became a subject of sustained 
discussion again in the 1970s, when its relevance for development 
policy added weight to explanatory arguments. Some early analysts 
thought that population growth dragged the eastern regions down and 
favoured the west as a place for new investments. Some explained 
disparities by citing the natural proclivities of the farmers, which 
seemed to raise productivity wherever Jats were more numerous. Such 
factors have now been discounted in favour of two others: landlordism 


31 Samar Harlarnkar, ‘Harvest of Death’, India Today, 8 June 1998, 33-37. 
32 Muzaffar Assadi, ‘Farmers’ Suicides: Signs of Stress in Rural Economy’, Economic and 
Political Weekly, 33, 14, 1998, 747-8. 


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and irrigation. In the east, social structures and land tenures were 
more prominent that took funds away from farming into urban 
investment and did not benefit agricultural productivity. Eastern 
regions of the northern basins thus provided the empirical basis for 
theories about the causal role of semi-feudalism in economic back- 
wardness. Government expenditure on irrigation was also much more 
prominent in the west, adding massive new stores of capital assets to 
farmlands from which landlord classes took a relatively small share of 
the proceeds for unproductive urban expenditure. The western parts 
of the northern basins became the land of agrarian capitalism despite 
the fact that landlordism and Brahman and Rajput feudal power 
remained strong in its zamindari and talukdari domains.°? 

Regional contrasts are less stark in the peninsula, but the mobilisa- 
tion of agrarian capital still focused on urban centres and around 
irrigation, and government investments were always an important 
variable. In nineteenth-century Khandesh, Berar, and other black soil 
tracts, substantial landowners went deep into debt but sold enough 
cotton to finance their own independent operations, as they accumu- 
lated cattle, dug wells, hired labour, and expanded investment in 
agricultural finance and local politics. By contrast, in many places 
across the dry south of the Maratha Deccan, Karnataka, Rayalaseema, 
and Telangana, and along the Tamil coast, irrigation tanks declined 
along with community and state investments in tank repair, and other 
sources of irrigation did not take their place. Good soil might sustain 
subsistence during a time of low prices but a good well would be 
needed even to keep the bulls at work in dry years. In southern 
Andhra, the gap between the rental value of irrigated and dry land 
steadily increased from 1850 to 1990, and dry land got progressively 
poorer by comparison.** Everywhere, government investments made 
a critical impact on patterns of capital accumulation. The Bombay 
government made taccavi advances to enable property owners to dig 
wells, and in 1877-8 most of the Rs 300,000 in taccavi was for digging 
wells. During famine years in 1899-1902 and 1918-19, about a 


33, Amiya Kumar Bagchi, ‘Reflections on Patterns of Regional Growth in India during the 
Period of British Rule’, Bengal Past and Present, 95, 180, 1976, 247-89; Eric Stokes, 
‘Dynamism and Enervation in North Indian Agriculture: The Historical Dimension’, 
reprinted in David Ludden, ed., Agricultural Production and Indian History, Delhi, 1994, 
Pp. 36-52. 

34 M. Atchi Reddy, Lands and Tenants in South India: A Study of Nellore District, 
1850-1990, Delhi, 1996, p. 181. 


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quarter of the taccavi loans, which totalled Rs 35 million, were 
specifically for digging and repairing wells. In the 1860s, government 
also began to build canals, and famine rapidly increased their economic 
and political value. The first big, modern irrigation project in Bombay 
Presidency began as a work of famine relief in 1876 and went into 
operation in 1885, with a capacity of 113,000 acres. Much smaller than 
the Chenab colonies, this and later projects disappointed Bombay 
government because farmers did not use (or pay for) all the water that 
canals made available. But those who did use the water became 
agrarian entrepreneurs in the regional sugar economy, backed up with 
urban finance capital, which combined private and government funds. 
By the 1930s, cooperative credit and sugar factories enhanced the 
position of sugar growers in river-irrigated Maharashtra, where poli- 
tical struggles in the twentieth century have centred squarely on the 
project of bringing sugar financing, sugar refineries, and cane farming 
into harmony, and where rich farmers have formed the heart of the 
agrarian polity.*° 

As in Punjab and Maharashtra, in many other regions agricultural 
capital accumulated locally among substantial landed families in areas 
of expansive cash cropping and new irrigation. Urban financiers and 
foreigners like the Marwaris faced village landowners who had close 
allies in town and who had ancestors among medieval gentry and 
conquering warrior clans. The Yusufzai, Gujars, Lodis, Jats, Rajputs, 
Yadavs, Thakurs, Maratha Kunbis, Maravas, and Nayakas shared a 
warrior heritage; while the Gujarati Kunbis, Gounders, Vellalas, Brah- 
mans, Kammas, and Reddys shared a gentry past. Families invested in 
agriculture within circuits of cultural capital. Religious rituals, temple, 
mosque, and shrine were sites for alliance-building and symbolic 
capital formation. As the sons of landowners became middle-class 
educators and political figures, they projected their identities into 
regional polities. Regional language and cultural identity movements 
which have been so prominent in the twentieth century owe much of 
their original strength to the ability of prominent landed families to 
project their own values and heritage out from farming localities into 
regions of public representation and state administration. In Tamil 
Nadu and Maharashtra, this involved a radical displacement of Brah- 
mans from their position of cultural authority in the British adminis- 


35 Attwood, Raising Cane, pp. 50-1. 


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tration. Literary erudition in vernacular languages became the mark of 
a true native, a son of the country, and universities became not only 
vehicles for upward mobility but also key sites for cultural production. 
Struggles to elevate the non-Brahman castes produced new cultural 
capital for landed castes, who thus improved their stature in agrarian 
politics. Among Marathas, Yadavs, Lodis, and others, becoming 
Kshatriya improved their social standing, while other groups adopted 
more Brahmanical modes of ritual, eating, dress, and exclusion. Social 
mobility and capital accumulation sustained and rewarded movements 
for caste uplift. In Madras Presidency, non-Brahman landowners held 
most official positions in all the districts and a study in 1901 showed 
that, among the parents of students in colleges and secondary schools, 
landowners accounted for about 36 per cent and government officials 
for another 40 per cent, most of whom would have been from landed 
families. Large zamindars like R. V. K. M. Rao, the Raja of Pitha- 
puram, with 400 square miles of land, much of it under the Godavari 
dam, were prominent financiers of the Telugu movement for non- 
Brahman caste uplift, education, and cultural revival, whose main 
supporters, like B. Pattabhi Sitaramayya, came ‘from rural rather than 
urban backgrounds. Many possessed vast lands in the villages, even 
though they were residing in town’ where they took up professions in 
law, education, and medicine.*® Landed magnates were equally promi- 
nent in the non-Brahman movements in Maharashtra and Tamil 
Nadu, as they were in the cultural politics of all the provinces of 
British India. 

Popular movements to promote regional linguistic and cultural 
identity tended to naturalise the social power of landed families over 
labourers during a period of history in which labour control became a 
more difficult and complex project. Political efforts to improve the 
condition of the poorest, lowliest, landless workers, tribals, and 
women were subsumed within regional efforts by landed groups to 
project their own patriarchal values and identity onto regional polities. 
Agrarian Punjab became synonymous with the cultural identity of 
landed Jats. Similarly, Rajputs defined Rajasthan and Marathas gave 
birth to Maharashtra. Vellalas, Vanniyas, Gounders, Kammas, 
Velamas, Kapus, Lingayats, and Vokkaligas played similar roles in 
Tamil Nadu, Andhra, and Karnataka. Cultural movements spear- 


36 Satyarani, ‘Commercialization of Agriculture’, pp. 321-48. 


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headed by landed families from higher non-Brahman castes, lauding 
traditional culture and fighting against the dominance of the British 
and the Brahmans, consolidated dominant landed caste control over 
local communities, where modernity posed a distinctive set of pro- 
blems and possibilities. Most basically, the terms of labour control 
were in tumult as farmers needed to bring more labour into produc- 
tion, more regularly, with each passing year. From medieval times, 
superior status had distinguished the families that combined labour, 
land, and finance on the farm; for these families, the internal bonds of 
family ranking and solidarity were supplemented with paternalistic 
powers over low-status landless labourers, artisans, and service 
workers. This created various types of bonded and client labour, 
which were virtually universal in areas of intense cultivation in 1800. 
The subsequent rapid expansion of farmland and commodity produc- 
tion increased labour demand; government withdrew from the enforc- 
ement of bondage; urbanisation dispersed the sites and jobs de- 
manding workers; land privatisation stripped hereditary entitlements 
from all landless families; and the state bureaucracy invaded the local 
domain of landowner authority. Clientage and bonded servitude did 
not disappear. A poor family might actually prefer it to the freedom to 
starve, and employers might enforce clientage to guarantee labour at 
peak seasons. At the same time, however, workers might be forced to 
look for wages by the disappearance of gleaning rights to village land, 
or they might run away to find better jobs. The impulses that altered 
labour relations therefore pushed and pulled in different directions, as 
dharma and coercive power continued to structure labour markets. 
Dominant caste supremacy in modern cultural and political move- 
ments certainly did help to solve their local problems of authority in 
the social relations of labour control, especially when combined with 
powers of patronage and agrarian finance. 

Debt proved to be a powerful, flexible mechanism for lowering the 
cost of getting workers to the point of production, not only landless 
wage workers but also men, women, and children from farming 
families that lacked enough land to support themselves. Landowners 
were typically the major employers and sources for subsistence and 
farm loans in a village;°’ and there is evidence that in some commercial 


37 Ashok Rudra, ‘Local Power and Farm-Level Decision Making’, in M. Desai, S. H. 
Rudolph, and Ashok Rudra, eds., Agrarian Power and Agricultural Productivity in South 
Asia, Berkeley, 1984, pp. 251-80. 


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farming areas, land was moving out of the hands of old gentry into the 
portfolios of investors for whom farming became more of a business, 
and for whom local credit markets would have been profitable.** 
Current figures on institutional debt (as a proportion of the gross 
value of farm output) indicate that, even today, rolling over short-term 
credit remains a good source of power in agrarian localities.?? Financial 
powers over workers were also stretched to cover great distances, as 
we have already noticed in the case of migrant labour from Bihar to 
Punjab. Indentured workers travelled to British territories in Africa, 
Malaysia, Sri Lanka, Fiji, and the Caribbean, and many families came 
to depend for subsistence on circuits of migration that moved among 
plantations, urban centres, factories, or commercial farms. 

Capitalist farming thus developed a strong attachment to family 
subsistence farming, in which women and children bear the burden of 
production when the men are gone.*° Seasonal and circular migration 
for work in the plains has long provided staple income for many 
families in the high mountains, most prominently the Gurkhas. In 
1876, famine drove workers from the plains to the coffee plantations 
in the Malnad of Karnataka, and this became a seasonal trek. In Berar, 
the Jabalpur settlement officer reported in 1894 that Gonds ‘flock with 
their families at the spring harvest to the wheat fields . . . to eke out 
their subsistence by working as labourers’ and farmers often grew a 
special crop of low-cost grain to feed them, because the wheat they 
were growing to sell in the market was too valuable for the workers to 
eat.*! Market crops — sugarcane, cotton, jute, rice, wheat, tobacco, 
plantains, tea, and indigo — are much more labour intensive than 
subsistence crops, especially millet, which they steadily displaced 
during the expansion of commercial farming. Digging wells and 
building irrigation, railways, and towns added new demands for 
mobile labour. Privatisation of village land cut off artisans, servants, 


38 Haruka Yanagisawa, A Century of Change: Caste and Irrigated Lands in Tamilnadu, 
1860s-19705, Delhi, 1996, pp. 126-94. 

3° In India, the ratio of short-term credit from all institutional agencies to the total value 
of agricultural output rose from 9.9 in 1970 to 19.1 in 1995. Compound growth rates in this 
ratio were 3.93 per cent in 1970-79 and 2.43 per cent in 1980-94. K. P. Agarwal, 
V. Puhazhendhi, and K. J. S. Satyasai, ‘Gearing Rural Credit for the Twenty-First Century’, 
Economic and Political Weekly, 32, 42, 18-24 October 1997, table 7, p. 2723. 

40 Gail Omvedt, ‘Migration in Colonial India: The Articulation of Feudalism and 
Capitalism by the Colonial State’, Journal of Peasant Studies, 7, 2, 1980, 185-212. 

41 Crispin N. Bates, ‘Regional Dependence and Rural Development in Central India, 
1820-1930’, Ph.D. dissertation, Sydney Sussex College, Cambridge, n.d., p. 227. 


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tribal farmers, and pastoralists from old subsistence resources. By 
1900, over half the rural population depended for their living on work 
for others and/or on farming small plots that did not yield enough for 
subsistence. A broad social division thus developed between those 
families who were net buyers and net sellers of labour, respectively. 
This did not amount to an increasing differentiation of classes because 
the overall percentage of landless families may have been much the 
same in 1900 as it was in 1800, and the overall distribution of farmland 
does not seem to have become very much more unequal. The trend is 
rather toward an increasing number of tiny holdings, too small to 
support a family for the whole year, and toward a vast increase in the 
number of people who had to work for others for a wage even though 
their families might own some land. 

In the middle sections of the peasant population, families lost land 
and bought land, subdivided and rebuilt joint holdings, and rented in 
and rented out land, losing here and gaining there — which makes any 
strong empirical trend in land ownership hard to find before 1950. But 
commodity production and privatisation did change the nature of 
relationships between families needing workers and families needing 
work. Small farmers, artisans, and petty traders moved back and forth 
between these two groups, and kinship groups and castes included 
families of both types, but a serious division of agrarian society 
developed which separated families with firm entitlements to food 
(secured by landed property) from insecure families (who depended 
on employment to survive). This division helps to explain the social 
distribution of famine mortality in the Deccan in the 1870s and in 
Bengal and Bihar in the 1940s and 1970s. Regional cultural and 
political movements that promoted ethnic, linguistic, and religious 
identities emerged as locally successful landed employers made their 
powers of patronage emblematic of solidarity among landowners, 
employees, and clients. Local leaders of agrarian society thus came to 
speak for the poor as they became the leaders of movements for social 
uplift, representing their own identity as that of all the people whose 
well-being they promoted with their patronage and political activism. 

Though, broadly speaking, the social trends that separated land- 
owners from others and the political trends that produced regional 
identity movements were similar in zamindari and ryotwari areas, 
everywhere, landlordism nurtured more radical agrarian politics and 
more polarised conflict. Tenants fought long and hard for rights to 


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land against entrenched landlord power within a modern institutional 
setting that sandwiched the zamindars and their legal peers between 
the tenants and the state. The extreme case of state protection for 
landlords was Hyderabad, which gave tenants the least legal protec- 
tion, provided no institutions for conflict resolution or reform, and 
eventually spawned a revolutionary peasant war against landlords 
and the state. Suppressing this revolution was a major military 
challenge for the new Republic of India, and smouldering class war 
remains the status quo in rural Telangana today. In British India, 
state power was more flexible and ambiguous in its support of 
zamindars. Tenants controlled labour, capital, and farming operations 
during the expansion of cultivation and commodity production; and 
significant legal powers accumulated in the hands of prominent 
tenant families in locally high-status social groups, very much along 
the lines of change in ryotwari tracts. Ranks beneath zamindars 
became many layered and hotly contested. Though activists and 
scholars have used the word ‘peasant’ to designate tenants who led 
struggles against landlordism and for property rights, local inequal- 
ities were at least as complex here as in ryotwari territories. In 
Bengal, for instance, the Dufferin Report indicated that, in 1880, 39 
per cent of the total population depended significantly for its 
subsistence on labour alone,*? and the proportion of landless families 
appears to have remained fairly stable until 1947. Even depression 
and famine in the 1930s and 1940s did not dramatically raise the 
percentage of landless families above roughly one-third of the total.* 
But relations among claimants to land changed dramatically with the 
expansion of cultivation and commodity production. 

In 1800, observers guessed that only about 30 per cent of the 
cultivable acreage in Bengal was being farmed; by 1900, farms had 
filled all the lowlands of Bengal, moving into Assam and into the hills 
on all sides of the deltaic tract, from Chota Nagpur and Orissa to 
Sylhet and Chittagong. In Bihar, Bengal, and Assam, the local 
struggles to expand cultivation which defined agrarian polities first 
pitted settled farming against tribals and jhum. From Mughal times, 
and increasingly after 1750, conflict had occurred between states, 
farmers, and forest people in the lowlands, foothills, and even the high 


42 Schendel, ‘Economy of the Working Classes’, p. 552. 
43 Sumit Guha, ‘Agrarian Bengal, 1850-1947: Issues and Problems’, Studies in History, 
11, 1 NS, 1995, 133. 


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mountains. Violence occurred in the central mountains from Gujarat 
to Bastar, but the major sites of persistent agrarian war involving 
tribal peoples clustered around Bengal —- some continue even today. 
Conflicts with the largest tribal group, Santals, mark the historical 
frontier of permanent cultivation. Santals cultivated the forest on the 
fringe of settled villages in the eastern Ganga basin and in adjacent 
regions. They numbered among those groups that have a claim to be 
indigenous though they also have complex histories of migration and 
resettlement. Santals interacted regularly with farming communities in 
the lowlands. They cleared land in the jungle with fire and axe, 
making the extension of perennial farm cultivation much easier for 
lowland farmers. But before the nineteenth century it appears that 
Santals did not participate as groups in rituals of rank in agrarian 
states; so they did not obtain official entitlements to land based upon 
ranked subordination in official hierarchies. Like other tribal groups, 
they maintained their own separate social structures and hierarchies, 
their own rituals of rank. As revenue-paying farmers and zamindars 
moved into jhum lands to expand agricultural territories, Santals were 
steadily pushed into the forest. By 1850, they had moved out of 
districts in Orissa, Chota Nagpur, Bihar, and Bengal, following 
skirmishes in 1811, 1820, and 1830.** In 1823, under official protec- 
tion, large Santal settlements ringed the Rajmahal Hills, in the 
Daman-i-Koh, ‘the skirt of the hills’, where, by the 1840s, 83,000 
Santals lived in government territory, legally free of zamindar control. 
Here, Santal leaders sought to establish a permanent homeland free of 
constant meddling by foreign moneylenders and Company officials. 
Under the full moon on 30 June 1855, 10,000 Santals are said to have 
heard a young leader named Siddhu declare his vision from god that 
Daman must be ‘cleared of all outsiders, that moneylenders and 
policemen be immediately slaughtered, and that Superintendent 
Pontet be also slain’. In the ensuing war, Company troops and 
zamindars massacred Santals and their low-caste peasant allies. 
Mundas around Ranchi and many other smaller groups also waged 
similar wars to create independent territories in the nineteenth 
century. None succeeded, but their legacies live in today’s regional 
political movement for regional autonomy in Jharkhand, ‘the land of 


44 ‘V. Raghavaiah, “Tribal Revolts in Chronological Order: 1778 to 1991’, in A. R. Desai, 
ed., Peasant Struggles in India, Delhi, 1979. 


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MODERNITY 


jungles’.*° As Santals were driven back from the moving borders of 
zamindari land, the state instituted tribal territories to segregate forest 
peoples in Bastar, other parts of the central mountains, and regions of 
the high mountains. This officially segregated the regional histories of 
the high mountains of the north-east and created the basis for separate 
national identities in Nagaland, Manipur, Mizoram, and the Chitta- 
gong Hill Tracts. As farmers pushed from Bengal into Assam, 
conflicts among farmers and plains tribals also occurred, and today 
conflict is raging in Assam that pits Ahoms against Bengalis and Bodo 
warriors fighting for a homeland.*¢ 

Inside zamindar territory, expanding cultivation was primarily the 
work of peasant farmers and superior tenants who combined labour 
and finance to create new farms and thus produced rights of first 
possession. A zamindar had many ways to exert power over tenants — 
legally and otherwise — and these remained until Zamindari Abolition 
in the 1950s. But expanding cultivation always entailed two distinct 
moments of power: the physical extension of farming and the political 
extension of zamindari property rights. By extending cultivation, 
tenants made claims to property that zamindars had to subordinate to 
their own claims, both within the territories of their accepted authority 
and also outside older zones of cultivation. Collecting rent from 
tenants was always a political activity that reinscribed ranks into rural 
society, season after season. Struggles over rights to old farmland 
might allow tenants to entrench their legal position, as they increased 
the value of their own land, resisted zamindar claims to rent, or 
bought tenures. Legal activity formed a basic feature of zamindari 
polities from the 1760s onward; and Acts of the Bengal government 
revised the terms of zamindari property law in 1819, 1822, 1859, 1865, 
1869, 1876, 1884, 1885, 1886, and 1894. In 1925, the 1819 Patni 
Regulation Act was still being interpreted by the High Court in legal 
disputes concerning transfers and encumbrances.*” After 1859, the 
state insisted that tenant rights be recorded, which gave tenants new 
leverage. The comparative strength of tenants in different zamindari 
territories is indicated by their relative success in getting rights 
recorded and payments acknowledged in receipts. In Bihar, their 


45 Arun Sinha, Against the Few: Struggles of India’s Rural Poor, London, p. 32. 

46 Sanjib Baruah, ‘“‘Ethnic”’ Conflict as State-Society Struggle: The Poetics and Politics 
of Assamese Micro-Nationalism’, Modern Asian Studies, 28, 3, 1994, 649-71. 

47 The All-India Reporter, Calcutta Section, Nagpur, 1925, p. 962. 


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position was poor; but in Bengal, the relatively open frontier strained 
zamindar power, except in old kingdoms like Burdwan. Zamindars 
always met resistance when they endeavoured to extend their rights 
over new cultivation, and where open land for peasant colonisation 
was most abundant, zamindars faced the most difficult challenge. In 
such areas, a rent-seeking zamindar might most profitably acquire new 
revenues by allowing effective ownership to devolve into stratified 
farming communities in which moneylenders and larger tenants 
established superior rights over farming families. This was typical in 
Bengal, particularly in the east, north, and south. 

The Mughal revenue lexicon entered Company land law and 
encoded the micro-politics of zamindari property until the 1950s. 
Broadly speaking, the terms in disputes were as follows. The land 
outside zamindari territory, khas land, belonged to government, 
which could lease it to farmers or zamindars at will. Extending 
cultivation onto khas might enable a peasant to establish a private right 
directly with the state; and this was not uncommon — it became 
increasingly so in the malguzari regions of the Central Provinces. The 
sir land belonged to the zamindar as personal property, for his own 
cultivation (often with hired labour or under lease to tenants) and here 
the owner did not need to grant any subordinate entitlements to 
farmers. The British called this ‘the home farm’ and it remained 
zamindar private property even after Zamindari Abolition in the 
1950s. Tenant entitlements were of two broad classes: khudkasht 
tenants farmed land inside their own village territory, in which they 
had rights of first possession or permanent occupancy rights, which 
derived from the (genealogical) claim that they had brought the land 
under cultivation themselves; and pahikasht tenants cultivated land 
outside their own villages on temporary leases. In everyday agricul- 
ture, the distinction between khudkasht and pahikasht was like that 
between ulkudi and parakkudi (intra-village and extra-village) rights 
in ryotwari villages in the Tamil country; and some version of this 
distinction seems to have pertained in most regions. It specifies a 
domain of ambiguous authority exercised by farmers inside village 
territories over land not cultivated by villagers themselves. These areas 
on frontiers of village cultivation — lands held by various groups under 
various local tenures — were open for the most serious proprietary 
contestation everywhere. Villages retained legitimate authority over 
this land and outsiders farmed land which belonged to the village 


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under the authority of the zamindar. This power within villages 
indicates that zamindari entitlements represented a three-way relation- 
ship between the state, zamindars, and villagers, who were composed 
in turn of powerful tenants, farmers, elders, moneylenders, and other 
important local patriarchs. In the Company’s terminology, a khud- 
kasht tenant had ‘occupancy rights’, whereas a pahikasht tenant did 
not. A zamindar had much more discretionary power over pahikasht 
tenants, whose rights to land were not under village protection. 
Zamindari recognition of khudkasht rights was not always voluntary. 
Some khudkasht farmers had received farmans from the Mughals or 
from Nawabs in Awadh and Dhaka, which were confirmed by the 
Company. 

Struggles over occupancy rights marked zamindar efforts to extend 
their power over villages on the moving frontiers of cultivation. 
European indigo planters entered the fray early in the nineteenth 
century when they purchased zamindar and tenant rights for indigo 
cultivation in northern Bihar and Bengal. With local powers over land, 
marketing, and finance, European planters in effect robbed peasant 
farmers of occupancy rights and combined debt servitude with 
coercion. Slumping indigo prices from 1839 onward increased pressure 
on tenants, and finally, in 1860, a tenant strike drove the indigo 
planters out of Bengal. This event revealed that zamindars had much 
more power in Bihar, where indigo planting continued until 1930. 
Sugarcane farmers in Gorakhpur District, in eastern Uttar Pradesh, 
suffered much the same combination of powers that oppressed indigo 
farmers. But on open frontiers of cultivation, zamindar and tenant 
rights were subject to constant local modification and political renego- 
tiation. Whoever controlled the means of production locally had a 
political advantage in the formulation of property rights. Though 
custom and coercion played their role, so did law; and legal disputes 
reveal that all the conflicting interests that pertained in ryotwari 
regions also embroiled zamindari land, including conflicts between 
farmers and financiers and between competing village claimants to 
family property. Only, here, zamindars perched above the tenants. In 
Bengal, Bihar, and eastern UP, it seems that, symbolically, a zamin- 
dar’s power to take fruit from bearing trees on tenant land symbolised 
his superior land rights, even if he could not enforce claims to rent. 

Cash crops provided new opportunities for both zamindars and 
tenants. Jute played a role in Bengal similar to that of cotton and 


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groundnut in the Deccan, as poor families held precariously onto 
subsistence by growing jute for world markets, living in debt, working 
family labour on tiny plots, and moving here and there to work for 
wages. At the same time, jute marketing, financing, and processing 
provided opportunities for capital accumulation. By 1901, Bengal 
supplied almost all the jute in world markets, and jute covered 30 per 
cent of the cultivated land in Rangpur, 27 per cent in Tippera, and 
nearly 20 per cent in several other districts. Zamindars were often in a 
good position to accumulate capital in trade and credit markets. This 
added to zamindar income even as real rental income declined; but the 
expansion of cultivation and cash cropping also enabled tenants to 
obtain credit, profit, and occupancy rights. Even in Gorakhpur, on the 
upland frontier in eastern UP, ‘there was an abundance of unoccupied 
cultivable lands’ in the nineteenth century; and, though most of the 
profits from sugar cultivation may have been captured by zamindars, 
moneylenders, middle men, merchants, and refiners, tenants increased 
their occupancy holdings after 1870.48 Occupancy rights expanded 
more broadly in Bengal.*? Legal reforms institutionalised this trend, 
but its micro-politics were embedded in the dynamics of agricultural 
expansion. In 1779, the Collector in Sylhet had reported that land was 
being cleared for cultivation by extended family groups, including 
several generations of in-laws and distant relatives, and he opined that 
conflict among families had reduced the rate of land reclamation. 
Collectors tried to resolve conflicts that impeded the expansion of 
revenues, and one claimed to have heard over 2,000 boundary disputes 
in the early 1780s. In 1783, he gave this account of why all his work 
did not bring in more revenue: 


cultivated lands which constituted but a very small proportion were only 
considered the property of the Zamindars . . . as to the waste of jungle lands they 
were in the most profuse manner bestowed as Charity .. . nor was any Register 
kept of such gifts [and] in consequence of this liberality there is not a person... 
not even of the most inferior rank in Sylhet who is not possessed of Lackerage 
land of some denomination or other and the best richest lands are exempt from 
Revenue.°° 


Facing the Company’s claim to own all the jungle as khas, ‘the land 

48 Meena Bhargava, ‘Landed Property Rights in Transition: A Note on Cultivators and 
Agricultural Labourers in Gorakhpur in the Late Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries’, 
Studies in History, 12, 2, NS, 1996, 248-50. 


#9 Sumit Guha, ‘Agrarian Bengal’. 
5° Sylhet District Records, National Archives of Bangladesh, vol. 292, p. 10. 


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hungry [zamindar] proprietors [in Bengal] began grabbing jungle land 
adjacent to their estates by getting them cleared and settled’, so that 
lakhiraj or rent-free lands spread across the open frontier. By 1900, 
virtually the entirety of the lowlands lay under cultivation, except the 
Sunderbans, and the most prominent forms of entitlement were 
patitabad, that is, tenancies granted ‘for the reclamation of cultivable 
waste’.?! When land came under secure cultivation, a zamindar would 
claim that he had made a grant of rent-free land to the tenant as an 
investment, to facilitate reclamation, and he would seek to resume rent 
collections after a stipulated period of time. Conflict with cultivators 
and local financiers would then begin, with everyone claiming their 
share and their rights. Where a zamindar had strong support and 
control over village leaders, he could succeed. Toward this end, the 
Burdwan Raj invented a form of tenure, called patni, which replicated 
zamindari property rights locally, and he thereby produced commer- 
cially valuable rights that could generate a local fund of rent for people 
who financed cultivation. Many kinds of subsidiary rights multiplied 
beneath the umbrella of zamindari, and local financiers acquired layer 
upon layer of rights. In Chittagong, as many as sixteen levels of rights 
existed between the farmer and the zamindar. There, a tenant (called a 
talukdar) on noabad (newly cleared) land would take a pattah from 
government and issue a secondary (abadkar) pattah to a talukdar who 
would settle the land with peasant farmers.°* We have seen that such 
derivative entitlements had a very long pedigree. 

The local powers that combined labour and finance on the farm 
strengthened local claims to land, and the hold of zamindars weakened 
whenever open lands came under peasant ploughs. Political struggles 
over tenant rights in Bengal led to reams of legislation. Court conflict 
produced major zamindari reform Acts in 1859 and 1885. In 1873, a 
ruling by a district judge in their favour encouraged a group of 
Muslim tenants in Yusufshahi to form an Agrarian League to defend 
tenants in Pabna District against additional rent claims, ‘illegal cesses’ 
(abwabs), and threats to their occupancy rights. Led ‘by men of 
considerable means such as the petty landlords like Ishan Chandra 
Roy of Daultapore, the village headmen like Shambhunath Pal of 


51 Sirajul Islam, ‘Permanent Settlement and Peasant Economy’, in Islam, History of 
Bangladesh, vol. 2, pp. 257-62. 

52 Binay Bhushan Chauduri, ‘Commercialization of Agriculture’, and Sirajul Islam, 
‘Permanent Settlement’, in Islam, History of Bangladesh, pp. 257-62, 374. 


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Meghoolla, and jotedars [major landed tenants] like Khoodi Mollah of 
Jogtollah’, the League’s demonstrations to raise support for their cause 
and to pressure zamindars evoked critical reactions from zamindari 
interests in Calcutta. But Pabna landlords who fought the League 
impoverished themselves in the process and the number of perpetual 
leases jumped up from 627 to 1,633 in the years between 1873 and 
1877.°> This was an omen. In the following decades, movements for 
secure tenure, lower rents, and restricted zamindar powers welled up 
under the leadership of high-caste and well-to-do tenants whose 
families were among those most responsible for increasing cultivation 
and expanding commodity production. Tenant activists and zamindar 
allies later moved into regional politics along lines parallel to the 
Marathas, Jats, Kammas, and Vellalas. 

The issues, leadership, and legality of the tenants’ struggle remained 
much the same even as the scale and organisation of their politics 
expanded. Mobilising was dangerous because tenants could lose every- 
thing if the zamindar won, and zamindars had many friends in town. 
In Bihar, solidarity among upper-caste zamindars and local managers 
and a scarcity of open land left tenants little room to manoeuvre. Bihar 
peasants combined fight and flight to make Bihar the largest region for 
poor peasant out-migration and the most radical ground for peasant 
movements in the northern basins. Class war developed between the 
upper and lower castes on zamindari estates, and it continues in village 
Bihar even today. In Bengal, by contrast, the trajectory of tenant 
power moved steadily upward as political opportunities increased for 
the advancement of subordinate property rights. In the east of Bengal, 
the fact that almost all zamindars were Hindus, whereas tenants were 
Muslims, produced a symbolic repertoire for popular mobilisation by 
which leading local families projected their own cultural identity and 
authority outward into the broad struggle between landlords and 
tenants. Members of the upper-caste Hindu bhadralok projected their 
own cultural identity out over all of agrarian Bengal, beginning with 
the writings of Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay; Muslim tenant 
leaders did the same, beginning with the organisation of the Agrarian 
League in Pabna. Zamindar and tenant supporters rejected each 
other’s claims to represent Bengal, and by 1906 their competitive 


53 Kalyan Kumar Sen Gupta, “The Agrarian League of Pabna, 1873’, in Hardiman, 
Peasant Resistance, pp. 111-25. 


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mobilisation had begun to open up a conflict between political groups 
that was identified publicly as a conflict between Hindus and 
Muslims. After the death of C. R. Das in 1926, possibilities declined 
for alliances across the political divide, and the Indian National 
Congress national strategy of accommodating landlords prevented it 
from taking up the tenant cause and winning a majority of seats in the 
Bengal Legislative Council. After 1937, zamindari power was in effect 
destroyed and Fazlul Haq, leader of the Krishak Praja Party, joined 
the Muslim League. In 1941, he raised the call for Pakistan and, in 
1947, what they called ‘partition’ in Calcutta was hailed in Dhaka as 
the arrival of a peasant utopia, a land free of zamindars. 


LOCALITY 


National independence partitioned South Asia in 1947 and again in 
1971. It built new walls against inland mobility. National leaders in 
their capital cities led the new expansion of urbanism that distinguishes 
our contemporary agrarian age. The influence of urbanisation today 
goes well beyond the sprawling impact of huge cities that rank among 
the world’s largest and fastest growing, because, regionally, urban 
growth is almost inverse to the urban population. Where urban 
centres were least prominent in 1901, their local expansion became 
most far-reaching, and the upward trend has accelerated. The percen- 
tage of India’s population living in urban centres increased by just 
over I per cent (from 11 per cent to 12 per cent) during the first three 
decades of the twentieth century, by 6 per cent during the next three 
(1931-1961), and by 8 per cent during the next three (1961-1991). 
This trend appears in all countries except Sri Lanka, which started 
with a relatively big urban population (12 per cent in 1901) and now 
has less than twice that proportion (22 per cent in 1991), whereas 
India’s 1991 figure (26 per cent) is 2.4 times what it was in 1901 (11 
per cent). Recent acceleration is quicker in Pakistan, where the urban 
population increased 70 per cent faster than India’s after 1961 to reach 
33 per cent of total population in 1991. Nepal’s small urban popula- 
tion (9 per cent in 1991) has grown as fast as Pakistan’s since 1961.>* 
Bangladesh is the most dramatic case. In 1961, its population was only 
5 per cent urban, which was only double the 1901 figure. It grew 400 


>4 Schwartzberg, Historical Atlas, pp. 114, 280. 


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per cent after 1961 to reach 20 per cent in 1991; in the early 1980s, the 
urban growth rate hit 10 per cent per year. Some of this increase 
resulted from reclassification. The 1981 Bangladesh census ‘extended 
the definition of urban areas to include small administrative townships 
and economically significant production and marketing centres ... 
which had certain significant “urban” characteristics’. The number of 
urban centres increased from 78 in 1961 to 522 in 1991, and today 
more than 500 urban centres have populations of less than 5,000, while 
the four largest cities contain almost half the urban population, nearly 
7 million people. As we have seen in the case of Tirunelveli, such 
reclassification might actually compensate for previous underestimates 
of urbanism; and the jump in urban population in the 1980s may well 
represent a realistic recognition of more rapid urbanisation in smaller 
centres than was previously recognised in earlier censuses. 

Strung along rail lines and roads, pulsing with trains, buses, cars, 
trucks, cycles, rickshaws, animals, carts, schools, and businesses, 
thousands of urban centres, large and small, are pushing the intensifi- 
cation of land and labour use in all agrarian regions, as farmland is 
built over, fields are pressed for more production, and families are 
leaving agriculture. Between 1901 and 1951, the workforce became 
more agricultural in South Asia (cultivators and labourers in undivided 
India increased from 69 per cent to 73 per cent of the male work- 
force),°® but the trend has moved in the opposite direction since the 
1950s, and today farming accounts for only 57 per cent of the total 
workforce in Bangladesh, 63 per cent in India, 50 per cent in Pakistan, 
and 43 per cent in Sri Lanka.°’ During three decades after 1950, 
livestock, net cultivation, and built-up land increased as much as they 
had during seven previous decades, while forest cover declined at 
about the same rate and population grew about 15 per cent faster.°® 
Some of today’s patterns of change date back to the nineteenth 

55 Shapan Adnan, ‘Fertility Decline under Absolute Poverty: Paradoxical Aspects of 
Demographic Change in Bangladesh’, Economic and Political Weekly, 33, 22, 30 May 1998, 
1338 and 1347, n.4. Schwartzberg has different figures for Bangladesh. 

56 J. Krishnamurty, “Ihe Occupational Structure’, in Dharma Kumar, ed., The Cam- 
bridge Economic History of India, II, c.1757-c.1970, Cambridge, 1983, p. 535. 

57 Tt is 93 per cent in Nepal. Bina Agarwal, A Field of One’s Own, Cambridge, 1994, 
p- 51, citing World Bank statistics. 

58 For data on thirteen countries in South and Southeast Asia, 1880-1980, see J. F. 
Richards and E. P. Flint (R. C. Daniels, ed.), Historic Land Use and Carbon Estimates for 
South and Southeast Asia, 1880-1980, Carbon Dioxide Information Analysis Center, Oak 


Ridge National Laboratory, Experimental Sciences Division, Publication No. 4174. Data 
from this study are available on the internet. 


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century. Nearly 1 million people moved into Chota Nagpur from 
Bihar districts in the twenty years after 1950, as tribal lands were being 
hacked into industrial sites and mines. Rapid in-migration by farmers 
and workers has similarly transformed other tribal regions and all of 
Assam.°? Every season of distress swells urban centres. Famines and 
severe scarcities in the 1940s, 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s brought hungry 
families into Calcutta, Dhaka, and Patna. Dry seasons bring landless 
workers and poor peasants into Bombay, Delhi, Madras, Ahmedabad, 
and other cities. After partition, uprooted Punjabis flooded Delhi, 
many Muslims from India resettled in Karachi and Lahore, and 
Bengali zamindars retreated to Calcutta, following the path of pre- 
vious generations. Social mobility also adds to urbanism. After 1950, 
Dhaka bulged with the rapid self-creation of a new middle class, 
straight from the village, its energies focused on the university and on 
careers in government, business, and professions. Nellore District, 
north of Madras, indicates rural trends. In its villages, real rental rates 
for land rose by a factor of nine during seventy-seven years between 
1850 and 1927, and then doubled again during the fifty-five years 
from 1927 to 1982. The proportion of rent to output also increased, 
especially after 1940, and this rental income fuelled social mobility and 
urban investments. For rent receivers, occupational change ‘was 
mostly a one-way process’ leading ‘from cultivation and traditional 
services to business, professions, and [other urban] employment’. The 
residential trajectory led ‘from the native village to a small town, [to] 
the district headquarters and then to cities’.°° 

The same trajectory also leads to Europe, Australia, the Persian 
Gulf, Malaysia, Britain, and the United States. Though it is rare for the 
people who move out of manual labour to move back to the farm, 
manual workers who go to the Persian Gulf or Malaysia often do 
return to their village with income to invest in houses, land, and 
business. Overseas workers from Sylhet, Sri Lanka, and Kerala are 
significant actors in their local agrarian economies, and young workers 
fill the airports on their way to and from their distant sites of home life 
and overseas employment. As we have seen, international agro- 
business has also established investment centres in profitable farm 
tracts. Migration, markets, reinvestment, urbanisation, and social 


59 K. S. Singh, ‘Agrarian Dimensions of Tribal Movements’, in A. R. Desai, ed., Agrarian 
Struggles in India after Independence, Delhi, 1986, pp. 147-8. 
6° Reddy, Lands and Tenants, pp. 93-6,159. 


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mobility by many groups have formed complex links between farms 
and the world economy. Brahmans, merchants, and other elites play a 
central role. Urban investors were drawn to irrigated land in the Tamil 
country from the start of the twentieth century; by then, village 
Brahmans were already using their rental income to move to town, 
and selling their land to reinvest in urban careers. By 1925, in Lalgudi 
Taluk, Tiruchirappalli District, Brahman land was shifting into the 
hands of non-Brahman business, farming, and labouring castes. This 
slowly but steadily changed the composition of farming communities 
and increased the salience of distinctions between local and absentee 
owners, between poor peasants and rich investors.°! After 1950, Brah- 
mans almost everywhere were abandoning agriculture and leaving 
villages where their ancestors had received land grants and rental 
income. Along with other high-caste groups among the old agrarian 
gentry — especially Kayasthas, Rajputs, and Baniyas — Brahmans 
moved out of old zamindari estates into cities across the northern 
basins and western plains. They left rural Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, and 
the Konkan coast for Madras, Bangalore, and Bombay. By 1980, many 
old agraharams (Brahman settlements) were abandoned. This 
Brahman migration became a subject for literature and drama and for 
films such as Pather Panchalt. 

After 1947, national politics, policy making, and intellectual produc- 
tion became the work of urban elites whose primary task became 
national development. State development spending soon outgrew the 
treasury and attracted finance from foreign states and international 
institutions, as capital accumulation picked up in the 1950s after two 
hard decades of depression, war, famine, cyclones, and political 
disruption. Imports, exports, and overseas migration also picked up. 
Agrarian participation in the world economy was adjusted to the new 
international system. Primary products declined in value in compar- 
ison with the output of industry. Under national control, only tea 
maintained its world position. Partition disrupted the jute economy of 
Bengal, separating processing plants in the west from farms in the east, 
and it proved easier for India to grow jute than for Bangladesh to 
compete with India for shrinking international sales. India’s national 
policies turned its agricultural markets inward to meet vast urban and 


61 H. Yanagisawa, A Century of Change: Caste and Irrigated Lands in Tamilnadu, Delhi, 
1996, pp. 163-4. 


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industrial demand. Inside the countries, overall economic trends have 
favoured non-agricultural sectors, and dividends from growth have 
disproportionately favoured urban sites, educated groups, commercial 
classes, and government. Families have set their sights accordingly. At 
the same time, however, farming communities have remained the 
foundation of economic growth and political power, because these 
industrialising economies still remain overwhelmingly agricultural. So, 
as national leaders in government, industry, and academia have 
detached their own existence from everyday life on the land, they have 
also necessarily forged new kinds of relations with the countryside. 
Politically, the work of building urban-—rural alliances animated all the 
nationalist movements going back to the 1920s, but national develop- 
ment allowed for radical departures as competing urban leaders sought 
rural support. In every state, government funding for development has 
been directed toward enhancing the productive powers of the owners 
of land, who became the backbone of national initiatives to increase 
production. 

Struggles over land and other resources have become more intense 
over the decades; their legal and political basis had been established by 
the mid-1960s. In Pakistan, the old landlord class maintained control 
and the great barons like the Bhuttos of Sindh still retain their vast 
estates as they lead national political factions. In Bangladesh, the old 
landlord class disappeared and major tenants became major land- 
owners. In Sri Lanka and in most of India, individual villagers became 
the landed electorate, and the best-endowed among them became the 
core of the green revolution. Where the rising power of tenants met 
the established power of landlords — each with their advocates in state 
capitals — the legal reconstitution of agrarian polities in the 1950s and 
1960s involved major political struggles. The universal franchise gave 
the strength of numbers to the tenants and, in this context, Charan 
Singh (1902-1987) became an architect of India’s national system of 
agrarian alliances. From a Jat family in Meerut District in western 
Uttar Pradesh, he rose through the Congress ranks, supporting tenant 
rights, and in 1939 he published his proposals to abolish zamindari. 
Working against the vein of early Congress policy and fighting 
formidable landlord influence, he mobilised support for zamindari 
abolition in UP, implemented reforms, and then prevented tax in- 
creases on farmers. His central argument was that ‘cultivators in Uttar 
Pradesh form the largest percentage of any state in India ... and 


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constitute 77 per cent of the rural electorate’, and he worked to make 
farmers into an aggressive political force.” Land reform in other states 
also followed the logic of state electoral politics. 

Everywhere in South Asia, localities assumed an official, institu- 
tional form: village communities were organised around socially 
dominant landed families within the jurisdiction of urban centres that 
house government offices. All the national regimes re-constituted the 
village as a natural social order to be modernised by the market 
economy and protected by state politics. Scholars further naturalised 
the agrarian social order in theories of culture and modernisation. By 
1972, however, when the waves of tumult that established the new 
regimes had passed — when, in one year, the Dalit Panthers, the first 
farmers’ organisations, the Self-Employed Women’s Association, 
Jharkhand Mukti Morcha, and the All-Assam Students’ Union were 
all formed — it became clear that official institutions faced rampant 
opposition from many sectors of society. Conflict, inequality, oppres- 
sion, resistance, and state politics became more visible as constituents 
of village society. In India, after thirty years of planning and slow, 
steady growth in agriculture (about 2.5 per cent annually), a Home 
Ministry study concluded that ‘the persistence of serious social and 
economic inequalities in the rural areas has given rise to tensions 
between different classes’, and some tensions had by then produced 
serious political violence. A Maoist rebellion in Naxalbari, West 
Bengal, in 1967, spawned the Communist Party of India (Marxist- 
Leninist) in 1969, which spread in fragments to Bihar and Telangana, 
becoming what People’s War Group spokesman Var Vara Rao has 
called ‘an alternative to parliamentary politics’.°* From the late 1960s, 
many locally organised movements rocked villages as the Congress 
Party lost control of state governments in Kerala, Tamil Nadu, and 
West Bengal.® In Tanjavur, Bihar, Telangana, and elsewhere, village 
massacres became news items. The violence predominantly pitted low- 
caste and Untouchable tenants and agricultural workers and tribals 
against landowners and financiers supported by the police, military, 


62 Terence J. Byres, ‘Charan Singh, 1902-1987: An Assessment’, Journal of Peasant 
Studies, 15, 2, 1988, 157-70. 

63 This is figure for the period 1962-1983. See G. S. Bhalla and Gurmail Singh, ‘Recent 
Developments in Indian Agriculture: A State Level Analysis’, Economic and Political 
Weekly, 29 March 1997, A-3. 

64 Indian Express, 23 May 1997 (worldwide web on-line edition). 

65 Schwartzberg, Historical Atlas, p. 277. 


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and courts, so that subaltern wrath was often turned against the state. 
In Tanjavur District, Tamil Nadu, one village organiser reported that, 
having surrounded the police vans, in 1968, ‘Several heads would have 
rolled on the field, blood would have flowed like the Kaveri in flood, 
if only we had not been restrained by higher-ups.’°® Quiet, unorga- 
nised, conflict may have also increased in agriculture in the past fifty 
years. In Nellore, the number of landowners grew after 1950, mostly 
in the category of marginal farmers who had less than 2 hectares, and 
the number of written rental agreements declined because conflicting 
parties sought to avoid the courts. At the Home Ministry, policy 
makers looked for ways to address the tensions that underlay the 
apparent loss of the modern state’s agrarian legitimacy, and, not 
surprisingly, nine of their recommendations sought to protect tenants, 
one proposed land reforms to limit family (rather than individual) 
holdings, one sought to protect tribals from moneylenders, and one 
called for a minimum wage for agricultural labourers. Echoing Charan 
Singh, the report concluded that a failure to tackle the problem of 
inequality ‘may lead to a situation where the discontented elements are 
compelled to organise themselves and the extreme tensions building 
up with the “complex molecule”’ that is the Indian village may end in 
an explosion’.°” 

Village stability remains a state project within modernity; dating 
back to the early days of Company Raj, it still preoccupies govern- 
ments and non-governmental organisations that promote political 
order along with economic growth and public welfare. Grassroots 
movements have multiplied and exerted their influence inside and 
outside the electoral system since the 1970s and they have come to 
represent many contending forces within agrarian societies. At the 
same time, however, the idea of traditional village society stabilises the 
modern state as well as the local power of landed patriarchs and 
protectors of dharma. Land reforms to increase the number of land- 
owning families have been a popular policy mechanism for securing 
stability, expanding equity, and stimulating production in the face of 
increasing competition for land; and they have continuously pitted the 


66 Mythily Shivaraman, “Tanjavur: Rumblings of Class Struggle in Tamil Nadu’, in 
Kathleen Gough and Hari P. Sharma, eds., Imperialism and Revolution in South Asia, New 
York, 1973, p. 246. 

67 Ministry of Home Affairs, “The Causes and Nature of Current Agrarian Tensions’, in 
Desai, Agrarian Struggles, pp. 36-43. 


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interests of large landowners against the power of all others who 
aspire to own land. Also in a vein of modern thinking going back to 
the nineteenth century, states have regulated landlordism and agricul- 
tural finance, with the idea — following Moreland and Nehru — that 
gross inequalities are ‘substantive obstacles to an unleashing of the 
forces capable of generating economic development, both inside and 
outside agriculture’.©* 

In India between 1960 and 1999, state policies and land competition 
shrank the proportion of cultivated land in operational holdings over 
10 hectares from 31 per cent to 17 per cent, while holdings of less than 
1 hectare increased by roughly the same proportion, from 19 per cent 
to 32 per cent. A huge population of small landlords and substantial 
farmers emerged from the ranks of former tenants and ryots. The 
predominance of medium-sized landowners increased because tiny 
farms multiplied as large farms dwindled and medium-sized farms 
(with operational holdings of between 2 and 10 hectares) kept roughly 
the same proportion of total farmland (about 50 per cent).° The 
picture varies significantly across regions. Very much smaller farms 
typify wetter regions in eastern and southern India, Sri Lanka, and 
Bangladesh, and larger farms cover the drier regions of canal and tube- 
well irrigation in Pakistan and adjacent India. In India, land holdings 
bigger than 2.6 hectares comprise the highest percentage of land 
holdings in Rajasthan and Punjab (30 per cent), and also in Gujarat, 
Madhya Pradesh, and Haryana (20 per cent). They play the least 
important role in Assam (4 per cent), Bihar (4 per cent), Tamil Nadu 
(3 per cent), West Bengal (1 per cent), and Kerala (0.5 per cent). 
Maharashtra, Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh, and Orissa fall in between, 
averaging Io per cent. Uttar Pradesh resembles Bihar in that only 3 per 
cent of the total holdings are bigger than 2.6 hectares,’° and the 
resemblance increases in the east, which has 49 per cent of all the farms 
in Uttar Pradesh that are smaller than 1 hectare. In this as in other 
respects, western UP more resembles Haryana and contains 40 per 
cent of all Uttar Pradesh land holdings between 4 and 10 hectares.”! 


68 Terence J. Byres, ‘Political Economy, the Agrarian Question, and the Comparative 
method’, Journal of Peasant Studies, 22, 4, 1995, 569. 

6° Centre for Monitoring the Indian Economy, India’s Agricultural Sector: A Compen- 
dium of Statistics, Mumbai, July 1996, table 1. 

70 Shah, ‘Food Security and Access to Natural Resources’, pp. 50-4. 

71 Zoya Hasan, ‘Shifting Ground: Hindutva Politics and the Farmers’ Movement in Uttar 
Pradesh’, Journal of Peasant Studies, July 1994, p. 176. 


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Substantial farmers who combine political and economic power at 
the local and the state level account for much of India’s agricultural 
growth and preoccupy growth-oriented development strategies. 
Between 1962-5 and 1992-5, the highest annual rates of growth in 
farm output came in Punjab (5 per cent), Rajasthan (4 per cent), and 
Haryana (4 per cent). These are also regions in which dominant 
farmers, mostly Jats and Rajputs, make the strongest political claim to 
represent their regional cultures. India’s north-west quadrant, with the 
most large farmers and highest per capita state investments in irriga- 
tion, had the highest overall growth rate, averaging 3 per ent. Eastern 
states averaged 2 per cent. Central (2.7 per cent) and southern states 
(2.6 per cent) fell in between, while Kerala (1.7 per cent), Orissa (1.6 
per cent), and Bihar (1.0 per cent) had the least growth.”* Everywhere, 
politically well-connected and organised farmers acquire state subsi- 
dies for capital-intensive cultivation and their local capital accumula- 
tion depends on state-managed electrical supplies, on state prices for 
petrol, pump sets, tractors, pipes, fertiliser, and hybrid seeds, and on 
state procurement prices, transport costs, bank charges, and credit 
conditions. They have thus led the mobilisation of farmers move- 
ments. Sugar growers, for instance, led the cooperative movement in 
Maharashtra from the 1920s onwards and they have also led farmer 
agitations in Maharashtra and elsewhere since the 1970s. In Uttar 
Pradesh, under the flag of the Bharatiya Kisan Union, farmer-activists 
made headlines in 1988 when they ‘laid siege to Meerut . . . in pursuit 
of demands for higher sugarcane prices, lower farm input prices, 
waiver of loans, higher rural investment and a lowering of electricity 
and water rates’.’? Whereas the old-style peasant movements focused 
on land rights, the new farmer movements that arose in Tamil Nadu, 
Punjab, Maharashtra, Uttar Pradesh, Karnataka, and Gujarat in the 
1970s and 1980s have used roadblocks, marches, and votes to demand 
better prices and assert ‘village interests’ against ‘urban bias’.”* 

Such grassroots movements express the identity of agrarian regions 
in the idioms and institutions of nationality and, since the 1920s, the 


72 Bhalla and Singh, ‘Recent Developments’, A-3. Also A.Vaidyanathan, ‘Performance of 
Indian Agriculture since Independence’, in K. Basu, ed., Agrarian Questions: Themes in 
Economics, Delhi, 1994, pp. 18-74. 

73 Zoya Hasan, ‘Shifting Ground’, p. 166. 

74 Tom Brass, ‘Introduction: The New Farmers’ Movements in India’, Journal of Peasant 
Studies, 21, 3, 1994, 3-26. For details, see Dipankar Gupta, Rivalry and Brotherhood: Politics 
in the Life of Farmers in Northern India, Delhi, 1997. 


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expansive local powers of landed groups have defined national 
agrarian regions in political, cultural, and economic terms. Constitu- 
tionally, agriculture is a state subject in India, and agrarian politics is 
most visible at the state level. New farmers’ movements are prominent 
only in states where capitalist farming has provided a sizeable class of 
landowners with a coherent set of economic and political demands, 
where poor farmers from allied castes are willing to march behind 
their richer neighbours. By contrast, state political culture in Bihar has 
become a battleground for caste armies representing landlord, peasant, 
and landless workers; and the limitations of land reform in the state 
reflect the persistent power of the landed upper castes. The consis- 
tently different pattern of electoral outcomes in eastern and western 
Uttar Pradesh arises primarily from the relative voting power of 
competing castes in the agrarian electorate. In Maharashtra, Punjab, 
Andhra Pradesh, and Tamil Nadu, too, the landed upper castes have 
invested state political cultures with their own identities. In Bangla- 
desh, landed Muslims did the same, beginning in the 1950s, when 
famine conditions lingered and Pakistani efforts to procure food 
supplies met resistance from the large landowners (jotedars), who 
blamed Hindu traders and promoted communal animosity. As in 
Tamil Nadu and elsewhere, a native language movement announced 
the arrival of the landed rural elite into the Bengali urban middle class; 
and by 1954 the Muslim League had been permanently displaced from 
East Pakistan.’? The Awami League led a movement for regional 
representation based on rural votes, and, when war began, urban 
middle-class patriots looked to the peasantry for inspiration. Rustic 
Bengali warlords who fought for freedom became a lasting political 
presence in Bangladesh, and, since 1980, Islamicist politicians have 
struggled to reproduce agrarian patriarchy in the name of the nation. 
Similarly, agrarian patriarchs in Uttar Pradesh, Haryana, Rajasthan, 
Gujarat, and Maharashtra have supported the rise of Hindu chau- 
vinism (Hindutva) and promoted traditional values to fight off strug- 
gles for equality by women and low-caste workers. Today, both 
Hindu and Muslim traditionalism seems to have their most decisive 
political support in the countryside among landed protectors of 


75 A. H. Ahmed Kamal, “The Decline of the Muslim League and the Ascendancy of the 
Bureaucracy in East Pakistan’, Ph.D. dissertation, Australian National University, 1988. 


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established social ranks who face the challenge of upward mobility 
and resistance from their status inferiors. 

Economically, farmers also propel regional trends, as we have seen; 
and, to add another, very recent example, agricultural growth has now 
decelerated in northern Tamil Nadu with economic liberalisation, 
pushing landed families to accumulate capital in urban match factories, 
gem cutting, textile plants, leather tanning, metal working, and tool 
and dye making — all in response to state policies geared to increasing 
Indian exports for world markets. At the same time, urban agro- 
industrial investors are pursuing strategies of backward linkage to 
secure their raw materials from the village. The result is that capital is 
moving up from villages into towns and down from cities into towns 
and villages, creating a more and more intricate web of connections 
between the village economy and the world economy.”° 

For people who lack property and money power and who must 
therefore work for others — including most women in agrarian society 
— villages remain the everyday site of power in agriculture. Competing 
locally for wages from their social superiors and patrons, low-status 
workers have developed strategies that seek to secure their well-being 
but also to prevent class alliances across regions. Work is seasonal and 
working conditions depend on employers in specific settings. Workers 
seek stable relations with employers, which is more and more difficult 
as labour is defined in more strictly market terms. With the vast 
proliferation of tiny holdings, fewer farmers can employ non-family 
workers with any regularity and more peasants must send their own 
families out for wage work. Poverty among poor peasants and 
ambition among substantial farmers combine to make labour contracts 
increasingly short term and job specific, giving employers more 
flexibility and workers more insecurity. This same cold logic also 
erodes loyalty among workers toward employers who need them 
desperately at critical times, especially to intensify commercial cultiva- 
tion. As workers are more likely to flee and fight for better conditions, 
capitalist farmers are more tempted to use non-market means to keep 
workers at work. In theory, capitalism may mean open labour 
markets, but it also permits coercion to lower costs and to keep labour 
in place; at the same time, social and political pressure can undermine 


76 Barbara Harriss-White and S. Janakarajan, ‘From Green Revolution to Rural Industrial 
Revolution in South India’, Economic and Political Weekly, 32, 25, 1997, 1469-77. 


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these coercive powers, depending upon conditions within specific 
environments. In Haryana, for instance, according to an investigation 
published in 1991, the monopoly of Jat farmers over state power 
allowed village employers to employ bonded labour and physically to 
prevent workers from taking jobs elsewhere, with political backing 
from the state government; while in nearby Meerut District, Uttar 
Pradesh, competitive politics among employers allowed workers’ 
wages to rise in response to outside employment opportunities.’”” In 
rural West Bengal by contrast, low-caste and tribal farm workers 
typically live inside the boundaries of village societies where debt, 
rent, patronage, and social constraints hold them in check and keep 
their wages down. In Tamil Nadu, low-caste workers routinely get 
higher wages by moving out into wide circuits of labour migration — 
to the Persian Gulf and Malaysia — only to suffer the same constraints 
when they return to live in their home village, where labour discipline 
involves social intimidation and upper-caste control of village roads 
and water. In Kerala, despite high minimum wages and relatively free 
labour conditions, the number of days that employment is available 
for agricultural labourers is very low, keeping wage income at near 
starvation levels for many workers. 

The institutions of village politics that are bolstered by respect for 
tradition and by the values of local self-government anchor everyday 
social power in agriculture. Modern states also rest on the foundation 
of village administration and stability. This makes widespread class 
action or broad union movements against village-based landed inter- 
ests almost impossible. In South Asia, local labour action is the norm, 
and no workers’ party has yet mobilised farm labour across distant 
agrarian regions. Instead, broad social and political movements seek to 
improve living conditions for people who live with subaltern entitle- 
ments by forming solidarities across dispersed, local settings. These 
‘new social movements’ do not fit into the older categories of class and 
national politics, but they do reiterate earlier movements as they 
expand their political possibilities by including a greater diversity of 
peoples, localities, idioms, and concerns. They all mobilise collective 
identities in a manner that resembles nationalism. In fact, from the 


77 Partha N. Mukherji, Report of the Study Group on Social Constraints on Rural Labour, 
National Commission on Rural Labour, Ministry of Labour, Government of India, 1991, 
cited in Jens Lerche, ‘Is Bonded Labour a Bound Category? — Reconceptualising Agrarian 
Conflict in India’, Journal of Peasant Studies, 22, 3, 1995, 484-515. 


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perspective of agrarian history, nationality appears merely to be one 
collective identity among countless others. Though its proponents 
sought to subordinate other identities during their acquisition of state 
power, they failed, because nationality has been defined primarily by 
the upwardly mobile urban middle classes and allied landed groups. 
As soon as national regimes were stabilised, many forms of conflict 
became visible which had been developing alongside struggles for 
national independence. The limits of national movements became 
more apparent. Even communist parties in South Asia had come to 
rest on a landed peasant base, and to the extent that they mobilised 
landless workers, they did so within a national idiom that failed to 
dislodge the dominance of landed patriarchs and to represent disen- 
franchised and marginal groups, including tribal peoples and women. 
In the context of national movements, however, many other social 
identities had also been mobilised, and they forged various cultural 
relations with nationality in the idioms of caste, gender, sect, religious 
community, and ethnicity. These movements have confronted landed 
power in the villages by various means. In the early 1980s, for instance, 
one Dalit official reported that, with local activism, ‘atrocities have 
increased’, and he explained that, ‘when status changes, consciousness 
comes, conflict increases’, but progress ‘starts with elections’.”® 
Outside electoral politics, the new social movements have expressed a 
wide spectrum of political alternatives that run the gamut from the 
violence of the People’s War Group in Telangana and of Naxalites in 
Bihar, to the symbolism of the Neo-Buddhist movement begun by 
Dr. B. R. Ambedkar, to the poetry of the Dalit Panthers, to the 
cultural separatism of adivasis and the legal activism of environmental- 
ists and the women’s movement. 

Since 1980, global networks have visibly altered agrarian territori- 
ality. Since the World Bank and IMF in effect rewrote national 
economic policies, superseding national governments on critical 
matters of pricing and state expenditure, the World Trade Organisa- 
tion has made Trade Related Intellectual Property Rights a major 
agrarian issue, and multinational firms have worked hard for control 
of South Asian markets and materials. Struggles over the moving 
elements of agriculture now proceed simultaneously in local, regional, 


78 Marguerite S. Robinson, Local Politics: The Law of the Fishes. Development through 
Political Change in Medak District, Andhra Pradesh (South India), Delhi, 1988, pp. 258, 
264. 


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national, and international arenas. International labour migrations also 
affect economies, social relations, and politics in many agrarian 
regions, as a result, vernacular movements have entered global net- 
works that challenge the authority of national states, the most dramatic 
example being the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, in Sri Lanka, 
whose struggle for a compact homeland along the coast is sustained by 
activism in South Africa, England, the USA, and Canada. 

The struggle over the Narmada Dam indicates some contours of a 
new formation of agrarian locality in the age of globalisation. De- 
signed before Indian Independence, organised by the Government of 
India, and financed significantly by the World Bank, the Narmada 
Dam project was to include 30 large, 136 medium-sized, and 3,000 
small dams along the mountainous course of the Narmada river, 
mostly in Madhya Pradesh. It would irrigate lowland farming tracts, 
mostly in relatively rich commercial farming tracts in Gujarat. Its 
artificial lakes would submerge villages housing about 200,000 people, 
many of whom are Bhils. Popular opposition to the project arose from 
media accounts of dislocation and hardship imposed upon tribals and 
the landless poor. Urban activists came to investigate, lead protests, 
file court cases, and broadcast news to rally opposition that spread 
overseas as it was translated into the global discourse of environment- 
alism and human rights. In Europe and the United States, opposition 
to Narmada — like the much smaller Chipko Movement before it, 
against commercial logging in the Himalayas — attracted activists with 
global vision; in their hands the Bhils’ plight was submerged by the 
global decimation of forests and wildlife, by environmental degrada- 
tion in India’s fisheries and around Chernobyl, and by the oppression 
heaped upon tribal minorities generally, including Iraqi Kurds.’? 
Eventually, the movement forced the World Bank to withdraw its 
support and to reassess funding for all huge dam projects (though the 
Government of India vowed to continue the work). Today, American 
college students watch BBC videos about the Narmada struggle along 
with films about rural women’s agitation for liquor prohibition in 
Andhra Pradesh and about human rights abuse in China. In South 
Asia, local agrarian histories are now moving into the future on a 
widening world stage. 


79 See ‘India: Cultures in Crisis’, special issue of Cultural Survival Quarterly, 13, 2, 1989. 


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Because there are too many relevant titles, I limit citations to monographs and 
anthologies, as much as possible, and cite later work that supersedes earlier 
scholarship. I omit some citations which have appeared previously in the 
footnotes. The lists of titles are alphabetical by authors, and each author’s 
titles are listed chronologically. A fuller bibliography, which I will update and 
expand, appears on my homepage: http://www.sas.upenn.edu/~dludden/. 


Intellectual history 


Agriculture became an official topic for scholarly analysis under Company 
Raj. The most useful monographs on agrarian ideas in the Company period 
are S. Ambirajan, Classical Political Economy and British Policy in India 
(Cambridge, 1968), Ranajit Guha, A Rule of Property for Bengal (Paris, 1963), 
Burton Stein, Thomas Munro: The Origins of the Colonial State and His 
Vision of Empire (Delhi, 1989), and Eric Stokes, The English Utilitarians and 
India (Oxford, 1959). For the later Raj, see B. R. Tomlinson, The Political 
Economy of the Raj, 1914-1947: The Economics of Decolonization (New 
York, 1979) and Bipan Chandra, The Rise and Growth of Economic Nation- 
alism in India: Economic Policies of the Indian National Leadership, 
1880-1905 (New Delhi, 1966), which is supplemented by Bipan Chandra’s 
editing of M. G. Ranade, Ranade’s Economic Writings (New Delhi, 1990). For 
post-19508 official thought, see A. M. Zaidi and S. G. Zaidi, The Foundations 
of Indian Economic Planning (New Delhi, 1979) and A. Moin Zaidi, ed., A 
Tryst with Destiny: A Study of Economic Policy Resolutions of the INC Passed 
During the Last 100 Years (New Delhi, 1985). 

Histories of historical writing, with reprints of scholarly classics, are 
appearing in the series entitled Oxford in India Readings: Themes in Indian 
History, from Oxford University Press, Delhi - see especially the volumes 
edited by Sugata Bose, Credit Markets and the Agrarian Economy of Colonial 
India (Delhi, 1994), Sumit Guha, Growth, Stagnation, or Decline? Agricultural 
Productivity in British India (Delhi, 1992), David Hardiman, Peasant Resis- 
tance in India, 1858-1914 (Delhi, 1992), David Ludden, Agricultural Produc- 
tion and Indian History (Delhi, 1994), Gyan Prakash, The World of the Rural 
Labourer in Colonial India (Delhi, 1992), Burton Stein, The Making of 
Agrarian Policy in British India, 1770-1900 (Delhi, 1992), and Sanjay Sub- 
rahmanyam, Money and the Market in India 1100-1700 (Delhi, 1994). The 
new Oxford series Readings in Early Indian History has opened with a volume 
edited by Bhairabi Prasad Sahu, Land System and Rural Society in Early India 
(Delhi, 1997), whose introduction is a history of relevant scholarship. 


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Four scholars have had the most profound personal impact on historical 
writing about agrarian history before 1800: D. D. Kosambi, Romila Thapar, 
R. S. Sharma, and Irfan Habib. D. D. Kosambi put ancient studies on a 
material footing that made agrarian issues prominent, and he integrated 
history with culture, myth, and archaeology; see An Introduction to the Study 
of Indian History (Bombay, 1956), Myth and Reality: Studies in the 
Formation of Indian Culture (Bombay, 1962), The Culture and Civilization 
of Ancient India (London, 1965), and Ancient India: A History of Its Culture 
and Civilization (New York, 1966). Romila Thapar spans ancient and 
medieval history and her work centres on social history and society—state 
relations in the first millennium BCE; see especially Ancient Indian Social 
History: Some Interpretations (New Delhi, 1978), From Lineage to State: 
Social Formations in the Mid-first Millennium B.C. in the Ganga Valley 
(Bombay, 1984), Interpreting Early India (Delhi, 1992), Recent Perspectives 
of Early Indian History (Bombay, 1995), and The Tyranny of Labels (New 
Delhi, 1997). R. S. Sharma also covers ancient and medieval history but his 
most important work is on feudalism and post-Gupta transitions: Indian 
Feudalism (Delhi, 1980), Material Culture and Social Formations in Ancient 
India (Delhi, 1983), Perspectives in Social and Economic History of Early 
India (New Delhi, 1983), and Origin of the State in India (Bombay, 1989). 
Irfan Habib, his students, and his colleagues at Aligarh Muslim University are 
the central intellectual force in Mughal history. His scholarship covers the 
second millennium and he is the key figure in debates about agrarian political 
economy in the early-modern period. See The Agrarian System of Mughal 
India (1556-1707) (Bombay, 1963), An Atlas of Mughal Empire: Political and 
Economic Maps with Notes, Bibliography and Index (Delhi, 1982), Inter- 
preting Indian History (Shillong, 1988), and Essays in Indian History: 
Towards a Marxist Perspective (Delhi, 1995). 

Southern regions of medieval history have a distinctive literature, which is 
more centred on the social networks of power and authority in agrarian 
territory. R. A. L. H. Gunawardana, Robe and Plough: Monasticism and 
Economic Interest in Early-Medieval Sri Lanka (Tucson, 1979) is the founda- 
tional study of Sri Lanka. Burton Stein’s Peasant State and Society in 
Medieval South India (Delhi, 1980) and Vijayanagara (Cambridge, 1989) 
anchor recent debates on south India; on the cumulative impact of Stein’s 
work, see South Asia Research (17, 2, 1997, 113-39). 

For the period after 1800, a bibliographical essay that I wrote in the early 
1980s considers about 375 titles published before 1981 and remains useful: 
‘Productive Power in Agriculture: A Survey of Work on the Local History of 
British India’, in Meghnad Desai, Susanne Hoeber Rudolph, and Ashok 
Rudra, Agrarian Power and Agricultural Productivity in South Asia (Berke- 
ley, 1984, pp. 51-99). Today, modern agrarian history seems more coherent 
than it did then. Six scholars have led the most influential trends. Bipan 
Chandra represents a national, political history that carries Irfan Habib’s 
mode of class analysis into the twentieth century. See his Modern India (New 
Delhi, 1971, 1976), Nationalism and Colonialism in Modern India (New 


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Delhi, 1979), India’s Struggle for Independence, 1857-1947 (New Delhi, 
1988), Essays on Contemporary India (New Delhi, 1993), and Essays on 
Indian Nationalism (New Delhi, 1993). Binay Bhushan Chaudhuri is a 
historian of the Bengal Presidency who exemplifies scholarly work on 
linguistic regions combining economic, social, and political history, and 
describing systems and trends of commercial production. See The Growth of 
Commercial Agriculture in Bengal (Calcutta, 1964), ‘Agricultural Production 
in Bengal, 1850-1900: Coexistence of Decline and Growth’, Bengal Past and 
Present (88, 1969, 152-206), “Ihe Story of a Peasant Revolt in a Bengal 
District’, Bengal Past and Present (92, 2, 1973, 220-78), “The Process of 
Depeasantization in Bengal and Bihar, 1885-1947’, Indian Historical Review 
(21, 1, 1975, 105-65), “The Land Market in Eastern India, 1793-1940, Part I: 
The Movement of Land Prices, and Part II: The Changing Composition of 
Landed Society’, Indian Economic and Social History Review (12, 1 & 2, 

1976, I-42, 133-67), ‘Movement of Rent in Eastern India, 1793-1930’, 

Indian Historical Review G, 2, 1977, 308-90), “Tribal Society in Transition: 

Eastern India 1757-1920’, in Mushirul Hasan and Narayani Gupta, eds., 

India’s Colonial Encounter: Essays in Memory of Eric Stokes (New Delhi, 
1993, pp. 65-120) and “The Process of Agricultural Commercialisation in 
Eastern India during British Rule: A Reconsideration of the Notions of 
“Forced Commercialisation” and “Dependent Peasantry’’’, in Peter Robb, 
ed., Meanings of Agriculture: Essays in South Asian History and Economics 
(New Delhi, 1996, pp. 71-91). A. R. Desai is a sociologist who has pioneered 
studies of changing social structure and attendant agrarian conflict and 
peasant struggles, from the nineteenth century to the present; see The Social 
Background of Indian Nationalism (Bombay, 1948) and his edited volumes, 
Rural Sociology in India (Bombay, 1961), Peasant Struggles in India (Delhi, 
1979, 1981, 1985) and Agrarian Struggles in India after Independence (Delhi, 
1986). Ranajit Guha has led the group of scholars published in the series 
Subaltern Studies: Essays on South Asian History and Society. See Elementary 
Aspects of Peasant Insurgency in Colonial India (Delhi, 1983), the six volumes 
of Subaltern Studies, which he edited between 1981 and 1989, and David 
Arnold and David Hardiman, eds., Subaltern Studies VIII: Essays in Honour 
of Ranajit Guba (Delhi, 1994).1 Dharma Kumar concentrates on the economic 
history of the Madras Presidency and specialises in the empirical critique of 
propositions about agrarian class structure: see Land and Caste in South 
India (Cambridge, 1965), and Colonialism, Property, and the State (Delhi, 
1998). She has also led the historical study of the market economy and 
development as editor of the Indian Economic and Social History Review and 
The Cambridge Economic History of India, Volume 2: c.1750-c.1970 (New 
Delhi, 1983). Eric Stokes focused on the northern basins in the nineteenth 
century. He positioned himself theoretically at the intersection of political 
economy and social history, and he set the standard for detailed empirical 


! There is a web site for everything related to Subaltern Studies: http://www.lib.virgi- 
nia.edu/ areastudies/subaltern/ssmap.htm. 


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research that integrates the study of agrarian social change with the politics in 
British India; see The Peasant and the Raj: Studies in Agrarian Society and 
Peasant Rebellion in Colonial India (Cambridge, 1978) and C. A. Bayly, ed., 
The Peasant Armed: The Indian Revolt of 1857 (Oxford, 1986). 

Studies that influence the direction of historical studies often appear in 
collections that cover a range of related subjects. The most influential 
anthologies are those edited by Hamza Alavi and John Harriss, South Asia 
(Sociology of ‘Developing Societies’) (New York, 1989); Sabyasachi Bhatta- 
charya and Romila Thapar, Situating Indian History, essays for Sarvapalli 
Gopal (Delhi, 1986); Sugata Bose, South Asia and World Capitalism (Delhi, 
1990); Terence J. Byres and Harbans Mukhia, Feudalism and Non-European 
Societies (London, 1985); K. N. Chaudhuri and Clive Dewey, Economy and 
Society: Essays in Indian Economic and Social History (Delhi, 1979); Alice 
Clark, Gender and Political Economy: Explorations of South Asian Systems 
(Delhi, 1993); Meghnad Desai, Susanne Hoeber Rudolph, and Ashok Rudra, 
Agrarian Power and Agricultural Productivity in South Asia (Berkeley, 1984); 
Clive Dewey and A. G. Hopkins, The Imperial Impact: Studies in the 
Economic History of Africa and India (London, 1978); Tim Dyson, India’s 
Historical Demography: Studies in Famine, Disease, and Society (Westwood, 
1989); Francine R. Frankel and M. S. A. Rao, Dominance and State Power in 
Modern India: Decline of a Social Order, 2 volumes (Delhi, 1989, 1993); R. E. 
Frykenberg, Land Control and Social Structure in Indian History (Madison, 
1969) and Land Tenure and Peasant in South Asia (New Delhi, 1977); 
Kathleen Gough and Hari P. Sharma, Imperialism and Revolution in South 
Asia (New York, 1973); Mushirul Hasan and Narayani Gupta, eds., India’s 
Colonial Encounter: Essays in Memory of Eric Stokes (New Delhi, 1993); 
Douglas Haynes and Gyan Prakash, Contesting Power: Resistance and 
Everyday Social Relations in South Asia (Delhi, 1991); Kapil Kumar, Congress 
and Classes: Nationalism, Workers and Peasants (New Delhi, 1988); Morris 
D. Morris and others, Indian Economy in the Nineteenth Century, A 
Symposium (New Delhi, 1969); Utsa Patnaik and Manjari Dingwaney, Chains 
of Servitude: Bondage and Slavery in India (Delhi, 1985); Tapan Raychaud- 
huri and Irfan Habib, eds., The Cambridge Economic History of India, 
Volume 1: c.1200-c.1750 (Cambridge 1983); Peter Robb, Rural India: Land, 
Power and Society under British Rule (London, 1983) and Meanings of 
Agriculture: Essays in South Asian History and Economics (New Delhi, 1996); 
Kumkum Sangari and Sudesh Vaid, Recasting Women: Essays in Colonial 
History (Delhi, 1989); and Anand Yang, Crime and Criminality in British 
India (Tucson, 1985). 

Histories of ideas that influence agrarian knowledge in the countryside 
have also begun to emerge in fragments. Shahid Amin, Event, Metaphor, 
Memory: Chauri Chaura, 1992-1996 (Berkeley, 1996), reconstructs some 
elements of one local sub-culture. Mentalities of agrarian subalternity pre- 
occupy Ranajit Guha, Elementary Aspects of Peasant Insurgency in Colonial 
India (Delhi, 1983) and many authors in the volumes of Subaltern Studies. 
Walter Hauser has documented the work of one important intellectual in 


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Sahajanand on Agricultural Labour and the Rural Poor: An Edited Transla- 
tion of Khet Mazdoor (Delhi, 1994) and Swami Sahajanand and the Peasants 
of Jharkhand: A View from 1941, An Edited Translation of Jharkhand Ke 
Kisan (Delhi, 1995). William R. Pinch, Peasants and Monks in British India 
(Berkeley, 1996), analyses local ideas about the historical process of agrarian 
social mobility. Gyan Prakash, Bonded Histories: Genealogies of Labour 
Servitude in Colonial India (Cambridge, 1990), finds oral epics of worker 
subordination. Surprisingly, little has been done on the history of popular 
thinking about scarcity and famine, but David Arnold, ‘Famine in Peasant 
Consciousness and Peasant Action: Madras, 1876-8’, in Subaltern Studies III 
(Delhi, 1984, pp. 62-115), and Paul R. Greenough, Prosperity and Misery in 
Modern Bengal: The Famine of 1943-1944 (New York, 1982), make a start. 
Mythology and folklore hold a rich store of knowledge; see for instance 
Indigenous Vision: Peoples of India, Attitudes to the Environment, edited by 
Geeti Sen (New Delhi, 1992). Scientific ideas about farming have their own 
kind of history; see M. S. Randhawa, A History of Agriculture in India, 4 
volumes (Delhi, 1986), and also Robert Evenson and Carl Pray, Research and 
Productivity in Asian Agriculture (Ithaca, 1991). 


Approaches to agriculture 


Three books present the basic geographical data: Joseph E. Schwartzberg, 
Historical Atlas of South Asia (Chicago, 1978), O. H. K. Spate and A. T. A. 
Learmonth, India and Pakistan: A General and Regional Geography 
(London, 1967), and Daniel Thorner, Ecological and Agrarian Regions of 
South Asia circa 1930 (Karachi, 1996). More specialised volumes cover 
regions. For Bangladesh, see Nafis Ahmad, A New Economic Geography of 
Bangladesh (New Delhi, 1976), and Haroun Rashid, Geography of Bangla- 
desh (Dhaka, 1977). Rais Akhtar, Environment, Agriculture and Nutrition in 
Kumaon Region (New Delhi, 1980) is a model of thematic geography that 
merits emulation. For India, see especially J. L. D. Sehgal, K. Mandal, C. 
Mandal, and S. Vadivelu, Agro-Ecological Regions of India (Nagpur, 1990) 
and Jasbir Singh, An Agricultural Atlas of India: A Geographical Analysis 
(Varanasi, 1974) and An Agricultural Geography of Haryana (Kurukshetra, 
1976). 

Seasonality is a pervasive theme. A good place to begin is Bina Agarwal, 
‘Social Security and the Family in Rural India: Coping with Seasonality and 
Calamity’, Journal of Peasant Studies (17, 3, 1990, 341-412). The best 
volumes are Robert Chambers et al., eds., Seasonal Dimensions to Rural 
Poverty (Montclair, 1981) and Martha Chen, Coping with Seasonality and 
Drought (Newbury Park, CA, 1991). 

Development is the most broadly integrative theme, but only a small 
portion of work describes farming in its local or even regional environment. 
Putting Marx’s ideas into specific agrarian settings has enabled scholars to 
theorise a diversity of modern agrarian transformations in South Asia. See 
particularly Ashok Rudra, Political Economy of Indian Agriculture (Calcutta, 


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1992), ‘Pre-Capitalist Modes of Production in Non-European Societies’, 
Journal of Peasant Studies (15, 3, 1988, 373-94), ‘Local Power and Farm- 
Level Decision Making’, in Desai, Rudolph, and A. Rudra, Agrarian Power 
and Agricultural Productivity in South Asia (Berkeley, 1984, pp. 251-80), 
Agrarian Relations in West Bengal: Results of Two Surveys (Bombay, 1983), 
and (with Pranab Bardhan), On the Interlinkage of Land, Labour, Credit 
Relations in Agriculture: An Analysis of Village Survey Data in East India 
(Calcutta, 1978). Rudra’s essay, ‘Emergence of the Intelligentsia as a Ruling 
Class in India’, Economic and Political Weekly (21 January 1989, 151-5), also 
put historians themselves into agrarian history by arguing that, ‘In the last 
two decades, the intelligentsia has emerged as a member of the ruling class 
coalition in India, the other two classes being the big industrial capitalists and 
big land owners.’ 

My approach in this book is also influenced by Amartya K. Sen’s Poverty 
and Famine: An Essay in Entitlement and Deprivation (New York, 1981) and 
by Joel Migdal, Atul Kohli, and Vivienne Shue, eds., State Power and Social 
Forces: Domination and Transformation in the Third World (Cambridge, 
1994). See also Tim Mitchell’s article, entitled “The Limits of the State: 
Beyond Statist Approaches and Their Critics’, American Political Science 
Review (85, 1, 1991, 77-96). Intersections of ecology, environmentalism, 
ethnography, politics, and history are stimulating the most promising scholar- 
ship today, and, in this respect, this book comes at the start of a new period of 
agrarian studies. For provocative research, see Anil Agarwal and others, The 
Fight for Survival: People’s Action for Environment (New Delhi, 1987); Arun 
Agrawal and K. Sivaramakrishnan, eds., Agrarian Environments: Resources, 
Representations, and Rule in Inda (Durham: forthcoming); David Arnold and 
Ramachandra Guha, eds., Nature, Culture, Imperialism: Essays on the Envir- 
onmental History of South Asia (Delhi, 1995); and Amita Baviskar, In the 
Belly of the River: Tribal Conflicts over Development in the Narmada Valley 
(Delhi, 1995). 

Regions have their own approaches to the agrarian past. In the same way 
that southern France and the southern USA have inspired agrarian literature 
that reflects their own cultural heritage, so has Bengal. Although Tamil Nadu, 
Punjab, and Maharashtra are well served by agrarian historians, authors from 
the old Bengal Presidency have shown the most profound rural attachments 
going back to the early nineteenth century. Only Bengal has its own regional 
agrarian history in the New Cambridge History: Sugata Bose, Peasant Labour 
and Colonial Capital: Rural Bengal since 1770 (Cambridge, 1993): whose 
bibliographical essay is the best guide to the literature. A new cluster of 
Bengal research is emerging around tribal and forest issues; see Mark 
Poffenberger, “The Resurgence of Community Forest Management in the 
Jungle Mahals of West Bengal’, in David Arnold and Ramachandra Guha, 
eds., Nature, Culture, Imperialism (Delhi, 1995, pp. 336-69), and K. Sivar- 
amakrishnan, Modern Forests: Statemaking and Environmental Change in 
Colonial Eastern India (Delhi, 1999). The only substantial compilation of 
village studies for any region of South Asia is Shapan Adnan, Annotation of 


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Village Studies in Bangladesh and West Bengal: A Review of Socio-Economic 
Trends over 1942-88 (Kotbari Comilla, 1990). 


Long-term history 


On pastoralism, the most important reading is in the special issue of Studies in 
History (7, 2, 1991) edited by Shereen Ratnagar, and the most insightful 
monograph is Gunther-Dietz Sontheimer, Pastoral Deities in Western India 
(Delhi, 1989). On pre-history, see Ecological Backgrounds of South Asian 
Prehistory, edited by Kenneth A. R. Kennedy and Gregory L. Possehl (Ithaca, 
1975); and Gregory L. Possehl, Variation and Change in the Indus Civiliza- 
tion; A Study of Prehistoric Gujarat with Special Reference to the Post Urban 
Harappan civilization: A Recent Perspective (New Delhi, 1993). Romila 
Thapar’s From Lineage to State is the best general view of ancient transitions 
and M. S. Randhawa, A History of Agriculture in India, 4 volumes (Delhi, 
1986), has details on farming from earliest times. For medieval history, first 
see Brajadulal Chattopadhyaya, The Making of Early Medieval India (New 
Delhi, 1995); B. P. Sahu, Land System and Rural Society in Early India 
(Delhi, 1997), and Herman Kulke, ed., The State in India, 1000-1700 (Delhi, 
1995); then see three important collections: R. Champakalakshmi and S. 
Gopal, eds., Tradition, Dissent, and Ideology: Essays in Honour of Romila 
Thapar (Delhi, 1996); Tapan Raychaudhuri and Irfan Habib, eds., The Cam- 
bridge Economic History of India, Volume 1: c.1200-1750 (Cambridge, 1983); 
and Irfan Habib, ed., Medieval India 1: Researches in the History of India, 
1200-1750 (Delhi, 1992). 

On the context of Eurasia, see Janet Abu-Lughod, Before European 
Hegemony: the World System A.D. 1250-1350 (New York, 1989); K. N. 
Chaudhuri, Asia Before Europe: Economy and Civilisation of the Indian 
Ocean from the Rise of Islam to 1750 (Cambridge, 1990) and Trade and 
Civilization in the Indian Ocean: An Economic History from the Rise of 
Islam until 1750 (Cambridge, 1985); Richard M. Eaton, ‘Islamic History as 
Global History’, in Michael Adas, ed., Islamic and European Expansion: The 
Forming of a Global Order (Philadelphia, 1993, pp. 1-36); Andre Gunder 
Frank, ‘The Centrality of Central Asia’, Studies in History (8, 1, 1992, 43-98); 
and Andre Wink, Al-Hind: The Making of the Indo-Islamic World (Leiden, 
1990). 

Regional coverage is very uneven for medieval centuries. On Assam, see 
Amalendu Guha, Medieval and Early Colonial Assam: Society, Policy, 
Economy (Calcutta, 1991). For early Gujarat, see A. K. Majumdar, Chaulu- 
kyas of Gujarat: A Survey of the History and Culture of Gujarat from the 
Middle of the roth to the End of the 13th C. (Bombay, 1956). On Nepal, see 
D. R. Regmi, Medieval Nepal (Calcutta, 1965-1966) and Ancient Nepal 
(Calcutta, 1969). On Orissa, see Hermann Kulke, Kings and Cults: State 
Formation and Legitimation in India and Southeast Asia (New Delhi, 1993), 
and Shishir Kumar Panda, The State and Statecraft in Medieval Orissa under 
the Later Eastern Gangas (A.D. 1038-1434) (Calcutta, 1995) and Medieval 


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Orissa: A Socio-economic Study (New Delhi, 1991). On Sri Lanka, see R. A. 
L. H. Gunawardana, Robe and Plough (Tucson, 1979) and W. I. Siriweera, A 
Study of the Economic History of Pre-modern Sri Lanka (New Delhi, 1994). 
For Bengal and the north-east, see especially Richard M. Eaton, The Rise of 
Islam and the Bengal Frontier, 1204-1760 (Berkeley, 1994); Abdul Karim, 
Social History of the Muslims in Bengal (down to A.D. 1538) (Dacca, 1959); R. 
C. Majumdar, Expansion of Aryan Culture in Eastern India (Imphal, 1968); 
Barrie Morrison, Political Centers and Cultural Regions in Early Bengal 
(Tucson, 1970); M. A. Rahim, Social and Cultural History of Bengal, 
1201-1576 (Karachi, 1963); and M. Tarafdar, Husain Shahi Bengal, 
1494-1538 A.D.: A Socio-Political Study (Dacca, 1965) and Trade, Tech- 
nology, and Society in Medieval Bengal (Dhaka, 1995). For mountain 
surroundings, the key work is Surajit Sinha, ed., Tribal Polities and State 
Systems in Precolonial Eastern and North Eastern India (Calcutta, 1987), 
which also treats Rajputisation. 

On Rajasthan, Rajputs, and Rajputisation, see B. D. Chattopadhyaya, 
‘Origin of the Rajputs: The Political, Economic and Social Processes in Early 
Medieval Rajasthan’, Indian Historical Review (3, 1, July 1976; 59-82); 
Richard Fox, Kin, Clan, Raja and Rule (Berkeley, 1971); Satya Prakash 
Gupta, The agrarian system of eastern Rajasthan, c.16s0-c. 1750 (Delhi, 
1986); D. Sharma, Early Chauhan Dynasties: A Study of Chauhan Political 
History, Chauhan Political Institutions, and Life in the Chauhan Dominions, 
from 800 to 1316 A.D. (Delhi, 1975); and Dilbagh Singh, The State, Land- 
lords, and Peasants: Rajasthan in the Eighteenth Century (New Delhi, 1990). 
On Maratha territories, Sumit Guhaa’s forthcoming book, entitled Environ- 
ment, Ethnicity and Politics in Western India 1350-1991 (Cambridge) will be 
the fullest monographic study, but Maratha records have sustained many 
good books. See especially D. K. Dhekane, Agrarian System under Marathas 
(Bombay, 1996); Hiroshi Fukazawa, The Medieval Deccan: Peasants, Social 
Systems and States (1500-1700) (New Delhi, 1991); Stewart Gordon, The 
Marathas 1600-1818 (New Delhi, 1993) and Marathas, Marauders, and State 
Formation in Eighteenth-century India (Oxford, 1994); and Andre Wink, 
Land and Sovereignty in India: Agrarian Society and Politics under the 
Eighteenth-century Maratha Svarajya (Cambridge, 1986). For the Indo- 
Gangetic basin see Muhammad Taqi Amini, The Agrarian System of Islam 
(Delhi, 1991); Brajadulal Chattopadhyaya, Aspects of Rural Settlements and 
Rural Society in Early-Medieval India (Calcutta, 1990); Iqbal Husain, The 
Ruhela Chieftaincies: The Rise and Fall of Ruhela Power in India in the 
Eighteenth Century (Delhi, 1994); Sunanda Kar, Agrarian System in Northern 
India from the Seventh to the Twelfth Century (Bombay, 1990); Dirk H. A. 
Kolff, Naukar, Rajput, and Sepoy: The Ethnohistory of the Military Labour 
Market of Hindustan, 1450-1850 (Cambridge, 1990); Harbans Mukhia, 
Perspectives on Medieval History (New Delhi, 1993); and M. C. Pradhan, The 
Political System of the Jats of North India (Bombay, 1966). 

For the peninsula, important studies are A. Appadorai, Economic Condi- 
tions in South India 1000-1500 A.D. (New York, 1981); Nicholas B. Dirks, 


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The Hollow Crown: Ethnohistory of an Indian Kingdom (Ann Arbor, 1993); 
Kenneth R. Hall, Trade and Statecraft in the Age of the Cholas (New Delhi, 
1980); B. S. L. Hanumantha Rao, Socio-Cultural History of Ancient and 
Medieval Andhra (Hyderabad, 1995); Noboru Karashima, Towards a New 
Formation: South Indian Society under Vijayanagar Rule (Delhi, 1992); 
M. G. S. Narayanan, Reinterpretations of South Indian History (Trivandrum, 
1976); K. A. Nilakanta Sastri, The Cholas (Madras, 1955); K. S. Shivanna, The 
Agrarian System of Karnataka (1336-1761) (Mysore, 1992); K. G. Vasantha 
Madhava, Western Karnataka, Its Agrarian Relations, 1500-1800 A.D. (New 
Delhi, 1991); Kesavan Veluthat, Brahman Settlements in Kerala: Historical 
Studies (Calicut, 1978) and The Political Structure of Early Medieval South 
India (New Delhi, 1993); and R. Tirumalai, Land Grants and Agrarian 
Reactions in Chola and Pandya Times (Madras, 1987). 

Temples have their own literature, mostly for the peninsula, with the notable 
exception of Hitesranjan Sanyal, ‘Social Aspects of Temple Building in Bengal: 
1600 to 1900 A.D.’, Man in India (48, 1968, 202-224). For a general model of 
temple operations, see Carol A. Breckenridge and Arjun Appadurai, “The 
South Indian Temple: Redistribution, Honor and Authority’, Contributions to 
Indian Sociology (10, 2, 1977, 187-211). Important studies are in Burton Stein, 
ed., South Indian Temples: An Analytical Reconsideration (Delhi, 1978), whose 
methodology is carried forward by Cynthia Talbot in “Temples, Donors, and 
Gifts: Patterns of Patronage in Thirteenth-Century South India’, Journal of 
Asian Studies (50, 2, 1991, 308-40). 


Early modern themes 


The best compilation of essays on the Mughal era is Muzaffar Alam and 
Sanjay Subrahmanyam, The Mughal State, 1526-1750 (Delhi, 1998). For 
imperial themes, see Stephen Blake, “The Patrimonal-Bureaucratic Empire of 
the Mughals’, Journal of Asian Studies (39, 1, 1979, 77-943 reprinted in 
Herman Kulke, ed. The State in India, rooo-1700, Delhi, 1995, 
pp. 278-304); Shireen Moosvi, The Economy of the Mughal Empire, c.1595: 
A Statistical Study (Delhi, 1987); Shireen Moosvi, ed. and trans., ‘Aurangzeb’s 
Farman to Rasidas on Problems of Revenue Administration, 1665’, in Irfan 
Habib, ed., Medieval India 1 (Delhi, 1992, pp. 198-208); Tapan Raychaud- 
huri, ‘The Mughal Empire’, in The Cambridge Economic History of India, 
Volume I (Cambridge, 1983, pp. 172-92); John F. Richards, The Mughal 
Empire (Cambridge, 1993); and John F. Richards, ed., The Imperial Monetary 
System of Mughal India (Delhi, 1987). On Mughal regions, Irfan Habib’s An 
Atlas of Mughal Empire (Delhi, 1987) has the most comprehensive data. Ideas 
about the agrarian dynamics of Mughal decline are explored in Muzaffar 
Alam, The Crisis of Empire in Mughal North India, Awadh and the Punjab, 
1707-1748 (Delhi, 1986); Satish Chandra, Medieval India: Society, the 
Jagirdari Crisis and the Village (Delhi, 1982); Chetan Singh, Region and 
Empire: Panjab in the Eighteenth Century (Delhi, 1991); and Andre Wink, 
Land and Sovereignty in India (Cambridge, 1986). 


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M. Athar Ali gives a good account of the inland geography of early- 
modern South Asia in his ‘Political Structures of the Islamic Orient in the 
Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries’, in Ifran Habib, ed., Medieval India 1, 
(Delhi, 1992, pp. 129-40); and, for a wider view, see David Ludden, ‘History 
outside Civilisation and the Mobility of Southern Asia’, South Asia (17, 1, 
June 1994, 1-23). For an Asian perspective, see Emporia, Commodities, and 
Entrepreneurs in Asian Maritime Trade, c.1400-1750, edited by Roderich 
Ptak and Dietmar Rothermund (Stuttgart, 1991); and, for a global view, see 
Alan Smith, Creating a World Economy: Merchant Capital, Colonialism and 
World Trade, 1400-1825 (Boulder, 1991). 

The linkages between overseas traders and port city hinterlands imparted a 
distinctive historical identity to coastal regions. See especially Sinnappah 
Arasaratnam, Merchants, Companies and Commerce on the Coromandel 
Coast, 1650-1740 (Delhi, 1986), and Maritime Trade, Society and European 
Influence in South Asia, 1600-1800 (Brookfield, 1995); Ashin Das Gupta and 
M. N. Pearson, eds., India and the Indian Ocean: 1500-1800 (Calcutta, 
1987); Indu Banga, ed., Ports and Their Hinterlands in India, 1700-1950 
(New Delhi, 1992); and Sanjay Subrahmanyam, The Political Economy of 
Commerce: Southern India 1500-1650 (Cambridge, 1990). On overland 
trade, see Stephen F. Dale, Indian Merchants and Eurasian Trade, 1600-1750 
(Cambridge, 1994). 

The substance of networks that connected agrarian regions with the world 
economy are explored in B. R. Grover, ‘An Integrated Pattern of Commercial 
Life in the Rural Society of North India during the Seventeenth and Eight- 
eenth Centuries’, Proceedings of the 37th Session of Indian Historical Records 
Commission (1966, vol. 37), reprinted in Sanjay Subrahmanyam, Money and 
the Market in India 1100-1700 (Delhi, 1994, pp. 219-55); Frank Perlin, 
Invisible City: Monetary, Administrative, and Popular Infrastructures in Asia 
and Europe, 1500-1900 (Aldershot, 1993), and Unbroken Landscape: Com- 
modity, Category, Sign and Identity: Their Production as Myth and Knowl- 
edge from trsoo0 (Aldershot, 1994); Prasannan Parthasarathy, ‘Weavers, 
Merchants and States: The South Indian Textile Industry, 1680-1800’, Ph.D. 
dissertation, Harvard University (1992); John R. Richards, ed., Precious 
Metals in the Later Medieval and Early Modern Worlds (Durham, 1983); 
Sanjay Subrahmanyam, ed., Merchants, Markets, and the State in Early 
Modern India (Delhi, 1990); and Sanjay Subrahmanyam and C. A. Bayly, 
‘Portfolio Capitalists and the Political Economy of Early Modern India’, 
Indian Economic and Social History Review (25, 4, 1988, 401-24). Bernard S. 
Cohn provides a good framework for regional history in three essays, 
reprinted in An Anthropologist among the Historians and Other Essays 
(Delhi, 1990): ‘Networks and Centres in the Integration of Indian Civiliza- 
tion’ (pp. 78-87), ‘Regions Subjective and Objective: Their Relation to the 
Study of Modern Indian History and Society’ (pp. 100-36), and ‘Political 
Systems in Eighteenth-Century India: The Benares Region (pp. 483-500). 

Regional studies fill out the picture of early-modern conditions. In addition 
to studies of Rajasthan, cited above, see Indu Banga, Agrarian System of the 


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Sikhs: Late 18th and Early 19th Century (New Delhi, 1978); Philip Calkins, 
‘The Formation of a Regionally Oriented Ruling Group in Bengal, 
1700-1740’, Journal of Asian Studies (29, 4, 1970, 799-806); Satish Chandra, 
The Eighteenth Century in India: Its Economy and the Role of the Marathas, 
the Jats, the Sikhs and the Afghans (Calcutta, 1986); Kumkum Chatterjee, 
Merchants, Politics and Society in Early Modern India: Bihar, 1733-1820 
(Leiden, 1996); Sushil Chaudhuri, Trade and Commercial Organization in 
Bengal, 1650-1720 (Calcutta, 1975); A. I. Chicherov, Indian Economic 
Development in the 16th-18th Centuries: An Outline History of Crafts and 
Trade (Moscow, 1971); M. H. Gopal, Tipu Sultan’s Mysore: an Economic 
Study (Bombay, 1971); S. Gopal, Commerce and Crafts in Gujarat, 16th and 
17th Centuries; A Study in the Impact of European Expansion of Precapitalist 
Economy (New Delhi, 1975); Karen Leonard, “The “Great-Firm” Theory of 
the Decline of the Mughal Empire’, in Comparative Studies in Society and 
History (21, 2, 1979, 151-67), and “The Hyderabad Political System and Its 
Participants’ Journal of Asian Studies (30, 3, 1971, 569-82); and Veena 
Sachdeva, Polity and Economy of the Punjab During the Late Eighteenth 
Century (New Delhi, 1993). 

On pre-modern urbanism, I recommend that readers start with Brajadulal 
Chattopadhyaya, “Urban Centers in Early Medieval India: An Overview’, in 
Sabyasachi Bhattacharya and Romila Thapar, Situating Indian History (Delhi, 
1986, pp. 8-33). For case studies, see Kenneth Ballhatchet and John Harrison, 
eds., The City in South Asia: Premodern and Modern (London, 1980); Indu 
Banga, ed., The City in Indian History: Urban Demography, Society, and 
Politics (New Delhi, 1991); Balkrishna Govind Gokhale, Surat in the Seven- 
teenth Century: A Study of Urban History of Pre-modern India (London, 
1979) and Poona in the Eighteenth Century: An Urban History (Delhi, 1988); 
and Hameeda Khatoon Naqvi, Urban Centres and Industries in Upper India, 
1556-1803 (Bombay, c.1968), and Urbanisation and Urban Centres Under 
the Great Mughals, 1556-1707, An Essay in Interpretation (Simla, c.1972). 

My discussion of early-modern trends in this volume draws heavily on my 
own research on the peninsula published in Peasant History in South India 
(Princeton, 1985; Delhi, 1989); ‘Archaic Formations of Agricultural Know]- 
edge in South India’, in Peter Robb, Meanings of Agriculture (New Delhi, 
1996, pp. 35-70); ‘Caste and. Political Economy in Early-Modern South 
India: The Case of Tinnevelly District’, in B. Stein and S. Subrahmanyam, 
Institutions and Economic Change (Delhi, 1997, pp. 105-33); “Urbanism and 
Early Modernity in the Tirunelveli Region’, Bengal Past and Present (114, 
218-219, 1995, 9-40); ‘Patriarchy and History in South Asia: Three Inter- 
pretive Experiments’, Calcutta Historical Journal (17, 2, 1995, 1-18); ‘Orien- 
talist Empiricism and Transformations of Colonial Knowledge’, in C. A. 
Breckenridge and P. van der Veer, Orientalism and the Post-Colonial Predica- 
ment (Philadelphia, 1993, pp. 250-78); ‘India’s Development Regime’, in 
Dirks, Colonialism and Culture, pp. 247-87; “World Economy and Village 
India, 1600-1900: Exploring the Agrarian History of Capitalism’, in Sugata 
Bose, South Asia and World Capitalism (Delhi, 1990, pp. 159-77); ‘Craft 


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Production in an Agrarian Economy, India, 1750-1900’, in Michael Meister, 
ed., Making Things in South Asia (Philadelphia, 1989, pp. 103-13); ‘Asiatic 
States and Agrarian Economies: Agrarian Commercialism in South India, 
1700-1850’, Calcutta Historical Journal (13, 1-2, 1989, 112-37); and 
‘Agrarian Commercialism in Eighteenth Century South India: Evidence from 
the 1823 Tirunelveli Census’, Indian Economic and Social History Review 
(25, 4, 1988, 493-519), reprinted in Sanjay Subrahmanyam, Merchants, 
Markets and the State in Early Modern India (Delhi, 1990, pp. 215-41). I 
have also used “The Economy of the Ceded Districts, 1800-1828’, an 
unpublished manuscript by Sourindranath Roy compiled from documents in 
the National Archives, New Delhi. 


Modern issues 


For a broad view of economic history, see B. R. Tomlinson, The Economy of 
Modern India, 1860-1970 (Cambridge, 1993), a compact analysis and excel- 
lent guide to the literature. For a wide range of specialised essays, see Dharma 
Kumar, ed., The Cambridge Economic History of India, Volume 2 (New 
Delhi, 1983), and the issue of Modern Asian Studies (19, 13, 1985) on the 
Cambridge Economic History. Sumit Guha, Growth, Stagnation, or Decline? 
(Delhi, 1992) presents one important scholarly debate, with classic reprints; 
for other debates, see Neil Charlesworth, British Rule and the Indian 
Economy, 1800-1914 (London, 1982). There is no book that compares long- 
term regional trends, despite the brilliant, pioneering work by Amiya Kumar 
Bagchi and Eric Stokes published in Bengal Past and Present (95, 1, 1976): 
‘Reflections on Patterns of Regional Growth in India during the Period of 
British Rule’ (pp. 247-89) and ‘Dynamism and Enervation in North Indian 
Agriculture: The Historical Dimension’ (pp. 227-39), which is reprinted in 
David Ludden, Agricultural Production and Indian History (Delhi, 1994, 
pp. 36-53). Studies of economic development are pushing in this comparative 
direction, however; see Ambica Ghosh, Emerging Capitalism in Indian 
Agriculture: The Historical Roots of Its Uneven Development (New Delhi, 
1988); Manjit Singh, Uneven Development in Agriculture and Labour Migra- 
tion: A Case of Bihar and Punjab (Shimla, 1995); and Surendra Singh, 
Agricultural Development in India: A Regional Analysis (Shillong, 1994). 
Comparative studies of agrarian change are still thwarted by the absence of 
full economic histories for all the regions. There is none for Uttar Pradesh, 
and most regions, even Punjab, are not fully covered. Two good books on UP 
focus on a small set of relevant issues: Ian Stone, Canal Irrigation in British 
India: Perspectives on Technological Change in a Peasant Society (Cambridge, 
1984); and Elizabeth Whitcombe, Agrarian Conditions in Northern India: 
The United Provinces under British Rule, 1860-1900 (v. 1) (Berkeley, 1972). 
For Madhya Pradesh, the most useful research is by Crispin Bates, beginning 
with his 1984 Cambridge dissertation, entitled “Regional Dependence and 
Rural Development in Central India, 1820-1930’, and his two articles, ‘Class 
and Economic Change in Central India: The Narmada Valley 1820-1930’, in 


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Clive Dewey, ed., Arrested Development in India: The Historical Dimension, 
(Riverdale, 1988, pp. 241-82), and ‘Regional Dependence and Rural Develop- 
ment in Central India: The Pivotal Role of Migrant Labour’, Modern Asian 
Studies (19, 3, 1985, 573-92). On Bihar, Arvind N. Das makes forceful 
arguments in Agrarian Unrest and Socio-economic Change in Bihar, 
1900-1980 (New Delhi, 1983), The Republic of Bihar (New Delhi, 1992), and 
The State of Bihar: An Economic History without Footnotes (Amsterdam, 
1992). There are good specialised studies of Sri Lanka: Jean Grossholtz, 
Forging Capitalist Patriarchy: The Economic and Social Transformation of 
Feudal Sri Lanka and Its Impact on Women (Durham, 1984); and Asoka 
Bandarage, Colonialism in Sri Lanka: The Political Economy of the Kandyan 
Highlands, 1833-1886 (Berlin, 1983). For Nepal, Mahesh Chandra Regmi’s 
two books are fundamental: Thatched Huts and Stucco Palaces: Peasants and 
Landlords in r9th-century Nepal (New Delhi, 1978) and An Economic 
History of Nepal, 1846-1901 (Varanasi, 1988). For Gujarat, Gita Bajpai, 
Agrarian Urban Economy and Social Change: The Socio-Economic Profile of 
Select Districts of Gujarat, 1850-1900 (Delhi, 1989) and Marcia F. Frost, 
‘Population Growth and Agrarian Change in British Gujarat, Kaira District, 
1802-1858’, Ph.D. dissertation, University of Pennsylvania (1995), are richly 
detailed, but the lack of a new general history makes me turn to M. Desai, 
The Rural Economy of Gujerat (Bombay, 1949). On nineteenth-century 
Orissa, see J. K. Samal, Agrarian History of Orissa under the British Rule 
(Delhi, 1993) and Nabin Kumar Jit, The Agrarian Life and Economy of 
Orissa: A Survey, 1833-1897 (Calcutta, 1984). The Bombay Deccan is well 
covered by Sumit Guha, The Agrarian Economy of the Bombay Deccan, 
1818-1941 (Delhi, 1985). M. Mufakharul Islam’s new study of Punjab is 
meticulous: Irrigation, Agriculture, and the Raj: Punjab, 1887-1947 (Delhi, 
1997); and Imran Ali, The Punjab under Imperialism, 1885-1947 (Princeton, 
1988) covers a somewhat wider range of issues. For Bengal, Sugata Bose’s 
Agrarian Bengal: Economy, Social Structure, and Politics (Cambridge, 1986) is 
the fullest monograph and his Peasant Labour and Colonial Capital is the 
best overview and guide to the literature. The new History of Bangladesh 
1704-1971, Volume Two, Economic History, edited by Sirajul Islam (Dhaka, 
1997) will perhaps stimulate other interdisciplinary collections that focus on 
specific regions. The model regional monograph remains Christopher John 
Baker’s An Indian Rural Economy: The Tamilnad Countryside, 1880-1955 
(Oxford and Delhi, 1984). For the earlier period in Tamil Nadu, see Arun 
Bandopadhyay, The Agrarian Economy of Tamilnadu, 1820-1855 (Calcutta, 
1992). 

Historians have so far provided the best empirical context for local studies 
in Bengal, Bihar, the Deccan, Gujarat, Punjab, Tamil Nadu, and Uttar 
Pradesh. A few monographs have both a local and a long-term agenda within 
a broadly comparative, regional perspective: M. Atchi Reddy, Lands and 
Tenants in South India: A Study of Nellore District, 1850-1990 (Delhi, 1996); 
Arvind N. Das, Changel: The Biography of A Village (New Delhi, 1996); 
Tom Kessinger, Vilyatpur 1848-1968: Social and Economic Change in a 


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North Indian Village (Berkeley, 1974); David Ludden, Peasant History 
(Princeton, 1985; Delhi, 1989); and M. S. S. Pandian, The Political Economy of 
Agrarian Change: Nanchilnadu, 1880-1939 (New Delhi, 1990). The local 
characteristics of agrarian regions are emerging primarily from an accumula- 
tion of regional studies that concern politics, economy, society, and culture, 
but tend to obsess on colonialism and nationality; this weighs the literature 
most heavily toward the study of agrarian administration, development, and 
politics. Histories of agrarian social and cultural change have emerged 
substantially from studies of social movements, for which the best summaries 
are Sumit Sarkar, Modern India 1885-1947 (Delhi, 1983) and G. Aloysius, 
Nationalism without a Nation in India (Delhi, 1997). One recent volume has 
compiled local studies across regions — Peter Robb, Kaoru Sugihara, and 
Haruka Yanagisawa, eds., Local Agrarian Societies in Colonial India: Japanese 
Perspectives (Richmond, Surrey, 1997) — but focused, thematic studies hold 
the most potential for comparative history. One compelling effort is Alice W. 
Clark, ‘Analysing the Reproduction of Human Beings and Social Formations, 
with Regional Examples over the Last Century’, in Alice W. Clark, ed., 
Gender and Political Economy (Delhi, 1993, pp. 113-45). 

Rebellion and resistance invite cross-regional comparison and provide 
mountains of evidence on the character of agrarian polities; conversely, 
geographical, temporal, and institutional contexts condition all agrarian 
upheaval. Telangana is a glaring example of regional particularity. For its 
administration, see S. Bhanumathi Ranga Rao, Land Revenue Administration 
in the Nizams’ Dominions, 1853-1948 (Hyderabad, 1992). The first phase of 
its revolutionary history began as the first radical phase of peasant politics 
came to end in British India; see Carolyn M. Elliott, “Decline of a Patrimonial 
Regime: The Telangana Rebellion in India, 1946-51’, Journal of Asian Studies 
(34, I, 1974, 27-47); Barry Pavier, The Telangana Movement 1944-1951 
(Delhi, 1981); and I. Thirumalai, ‘Peasant Class Assertions in Nalgonda and 
Warangal Districts of Telangana, 1930-1946’, Indian Economic and Social 
History Review (31, 2, 1994, 217-38). The discourse and experience of 
revolution became uniquely embedded in its agrarian culture; see Devulapalli 
Venkateswara Rao, Telangana Armed Struggle and the Path of Indian 
Revolution: A Critique of ‘Telangana People’s Struggle and Its Lessons’ 
Written by P. Sundarayya and of ‘Postscript’ to the Book ‘The Great Heroic 
Telangana Struggle’ Written by Chandra Pulla Reddy (Hyderabad, 1982); 
Arutla Ramachandra Reddy, Telangana Struggle: Memoirs (New Delhi, 
1984); and Vasantha Kannabiran et al., We Were Making History: Life Stories 
of Women in the Telangana People’s Struggle (London, 1989). 

Eric Stokes (The Peasant and the Raj, Cambridge, 1978) stressed that 
rebelliousness needs to be explained in its time and place, and many studies 
locate agrarian resistance within regional power structures: for instance, 
Conrad Wood, The Moplah Rebellion and Its Genesis (New Delhi, 1987); 
Jagdish Chandra Jha, The Bhumji Revolt, 1832-3: Ganga Narain’s Langama 
or Turmoil (Delhi, 1967); and Kapil Kumar, Peasants in Revolt, Tenants, 
Landlords, Congress and the Raj in Oudh, 1886-1922 (New Delhi, 1984). 


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But the historical meanings of ‘revolt’, ‘revolution’, and ‘resistance’ also merit 
attention; on this, see T. J. Byres, Charan Singh, 1902-87, An Assessment 
(Patna, 1988) and Charan Singh, Agrarian Revolution in Uttar Pradesh 
(Allahabad, 1957), for revolution from above; and Gail Omvedt, Reinventing 
Revolution: New Social Movements and the Socialist Tradition in India 
(Armonk, 1993) for popular redefinitions. 

Definitions destabilise across regions, periods, and social contexts; and 
comparisons yield empirical patterns that challenge theory. Gujarat, for 
instance, could not be more different from Telangana. David Hardiman has 
explored Gujarati resistance in his Peasant Nationalists of Gujarat: Kheda 
District, 1917-1934 (Delhi, 1981), The Coming of the Devi: Adivasi Assertion 
in Western India (Delhi, 1987), and Feeding the Baniya: Peasants and Usurers 
in Western India (Delhi, 1996). In this land without zamindars, the term 
‘peasant’ covers a spectrum from very rich commercial farmers to the poorest 
family farmers, near-landless workers, and tribal communities, and ‘revolt’ 
could be said to have many distinctively Gujarati meanings in practice. On 
the social and economic background of Gandhian politics, see Crispin Bates, 
‘The Nature of Social Change in Rural Gujarat: The Kheda District, 
1818-1918’, Modern Asian Studies (15, 4, 1981, 415-54), and Gita Bajpai, 
Agrarian Urban Economy and Social Change (Delhi, 1989). On farmers’ 
politics, see E. J. M. Epstein, The Earthy Soil: Bombay Peasants and the 
Indian Nationalist Movement, 1919-1947 (Oxford, 1988); on other leader- 
ship, see Ghanshyam Shah, Politics of Scheduled Cases and Tribes. Adivasi 
and Harijan Leaders of Gujarat (Bombay, 1975). On the premier agrarian 
leader of the region, Sardar Patel, see The Collected Works of Sardar 
Vallabhbhai Patel, edited by P. N. Chopra (Delhi, 1990). 

Colonialism is the definitive institutional context of peasant life for many 
historians — see especially Ranajit Guha, Dominance without Hegemony: 
History and Power in Colonial India (Cambridge, 1997) — but it is obviously 
only part of the picture. Subalterns work within many institutions that set the 
terms of their struggles, and differences among local settings are significant. In 
this book, I focus on regional patterns, on the contrast between intensive 
agriculture and tribal cultivation, and on institutions that define modern 
subalterns in zamindari and ryotwari terms. Legal institutions distinguish 
tenant struggles from tribal revolts, and they also help to explain differences 
between rebellion in Telangana and Gujarat (or Punjab and Bihar). Land- 
lordism has been more particularistic, culturally complex, and changeable 
than I indicate here. See C. J. Baker, “Tamil Nadu Estates in the Twentieth 
Century’, Indian Economic and Social History Review (8, 1, 1976, 1-44); 
Nicholas B. Dirks, The Hollow Crown (Ann Arbor, 1993); Stephen Hen- 
ningham, A Great Estate and Its Landlords in Colonial India: Darbhanga, 
1860-1942 (New Delhi, 1990); T. R. Metcalf, Land, Landlords and the British 
Raj: Northern India in the Nineteenth Century (Berkeley, 1979); Nilmani 
Mukherjee, A Bengal Zamindar: Jaykrishna Mukherjee of Uttarpara and His 
Times, 1808-1888 (Calcutta, 1975); Pamela G. Price, Kingship and Political 
Practice in Colonial India (Cambridge, 1996); N. G. Ranga, Economic 


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Conditions of Zamindari Ryots (Dezwada, 1933); D. Subramanyam Reddy, 
Agrarian Relations and Peasant in Modern Andhra: A Study of Kalahasti 
Zamindari (Delhi, 1990); P. D. Reeves, Landlords and Governments in Uttar 
Pradesh: A Study of Their Relations until Zamindari Abolition (Oxford, 
1991); Richard G. Fox, From Zamindar to Ballot Box (Ithaca, 1969); and 
Anand A. Yang, The Limited Raj: Agrarian Relations in Colonial India, 
Saran District, 1793-1920 (Berkeley, 1989). 

Local power relations differed significantly even among sites of sugar 
production, which were all marked by strict subordination of farming to 
capital and of labour to management. In Maharashtra, farmers owned land 
and expanded their control of investment. In eastern UP, they could not. See 
Donald W. Attwood, Raising Cane: The Political Economy of Sugar in 
Western India (Boulder, 1992) and Shahid Amin, Sugarcane and Sugar in 
Gorakhpur: An Inquiry into Peasant Production for Capitalist Enterprise in 
Colonial India (Delhi, 1984). 

How does colonial capitalism transform agrarian societies? This remains a 
critical question for comparative history. On a world scale, it may be that, in 
the Americas, investors could use the state to remake plantation societies in 
the interest of world capitalism — see Madhavi Kale, Fragments of Empire: 
Capital, Slavery, and Indian Indentured Labour in the British Caribbean 
(Philadelphia, 1998) — but, in Asia, capital acquired commodities for world 
markets without providing Europeans much direct power in agrarian 
localities. Capitalism and colonialism, like modernity and nationality, varied 
substantially across agrarian environments; and by sorting out their historical 
patterns we can better appreciate their local substance and global reach. The 
distinctiveness of hills, forests, and tribal environments is now receiving 
more attention. See Tarasankar Banerjee, ed., Changing Land Systems and 
Tribals in Eastern India in the Modern Period: Report of a Seminar Held at 
Santiniketan, 6-7 March 1986 (Calcutta, 1989); Ramachandra Guha, The 
Unquiet Woods: Ecological Change and Peasant Resistance in the Himalaya 
(Delhi, 1989); J. C. Jha, The Indian National Congress and the Tribals, 
1885-1985 (New Delhi, 1985); Govind Ballabh Pant, The Forest Problem in 
Kumaon: Forest Problems and National Uprising in the Himalayan Region 
(With a Commentary by Ajay S. Rawat) (Nainital, 1985); Biswamoy Pati, 
Resisting Domination: Peasants, Tribals and the National Movement in 
Orissa, 1920-1950 (Delhi, 1993); Archana Prasad, ‘Forests and Subsistence 
in Colonial India: A Study of the Central Provinces, 1830-1945’, Ph.D. 
dissertation, Centre for Historical Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University 
(1994); and Mahesh Rangarajan, Fencing the Forest: Conservation and 
Ecological Change in India’s Central Provinces, 1860-1914 (Delhi, 1996). 
On Santals, see Suchibrata Sen, The Santals of Jungle Mahals: An Agrarian 
History, 1793-1861 (Calcutta, 1984) and also P. K. Bhowmick, Dynamics of 
tribal development (New Delhi, 1993); A. B. Chaudhuri, State Formation 
among Tribals: A Quest for Santal Identity (New Delhi, 1993); and B. K. 
Sharma, Habitat, Economy & Society of Tribal Core: A Case Study of 
Damin-I-Koh (New Delhi, 1992). On Bastar, see Nandini Sundar, Subal- 


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terns and Sovereigns: An Anthropological History of Bastar, 1854-1996 
(Delhi, 1997). 

A number of books which I have not yet cited document the modern 
history of agrarian polities. On Assam, see Ajeya Sarkar, Regionalism, State 
and the Emerging Political Pattern in India (Calcutta, 1990) and Amalendu 
Guha, Planter Raj to Swaraj: Freedom Movement and Electoral Politics in 
Assam, 1826-1947 (New Delhi, 1977). On Bangladesh, see A. F. Salahuddin 
Ahmed, Bengali Nationalism and the Emergence of Bangladesh (Dhaka, 
1994); James Boyce, Agrarian Impasse in Bengal: Institutional Contraints to 
Technological Change (New York, 1987); Haroon-or-Rashid, The Foreshad- 
owing of Bangladesh (Dhaka, 1987); Tajul ul-Islam Hashmi, Peasant Utopia: 
The Communalization of Class Politics in East Bengal, 1920-1947 (Dhaka, 
1994); Sirajul Islam, Bangladesh District Records (Dacca, 1978) and Rural 
History of Bangladesh: A Source Study (Dacca, 1977); Atiur Rahman, Peasants 
and Classes: A Study in Differentiation in Bangladesh (London, 1986); and 
Kirsten Westergaard, State and Rural Society in Bangladesh: A Study in 
Relationships (London, 1985). On greater Bengal, see Partha Chatterjee, 
Bengal 1920-1947: The Land Question (Calcutta, 1984); Joya Chatterji, 
Bengal Divided: Hindu Communalism and Partition, 1932-47 (Cambridge, 
1995); Ranajit Das Gupta, Economy, Society and Politics in Bengal: Jalpaiguri 
1869-1947 (Delhi, 1992); M. Mufakharul Islam, Agricultural Development in 
Bengal, 1920-1947: A Quantitative Study (Cambridge, 1978); Sirajul Islam, 
Rent and Raiyat; Society and Economy of Eastern Bengal; 1859-1928 (Dhaka, 
1989); Chitta Panda, The Decline of the Bengal Zamindars: Mindapore, 
1870-1920 (Delhi, 1997); Ratnalekha Ray, Change in Bengal Agrarian 
Society, 1760-1850 (New Delhi, 1979); Willem van Schendel, Three Deltas: 
Accumulation and Poverty in Rural Burma, Bengal, and South India (New 
Delhi, 1991); Willem van Schendel and Aminul Haque Faraizi, Rural 
Labourers in Bengal, 1880-1980 (Rotterdam, 1984); and Sunil Kumar Sen, 
Agrarian Struggle in Bengal, 1946-7 (New Delhi, 1972). 

On Bihar, see Francine R. Frankel, ‘Caste, Land and Dominance in Bihar: 
Breakdown of the Brahmanical Social Order’, in Francine R. Frankel and M. 
S. A. Rao, Dominance and State Power in Modern India (Delhi, 1989, vol. 1, 
pp. 46-133); Bindeshwar Ram, Land and Society in India: Agrarian Relations 
in Colonial North Bihar (Delhi, 1998); Peter Robb, Evolution of British Policy 
towards Indian Politics 1880-1920: Essays on Colonial Attitudes, Imperial 
Strategies, and Bihar (Delhi, 1992). 

On Gujarat, Maharashtra, and the Bombay Deccan, see Neil Charlesworth, 
Peasants and Imperial Rule: Agriculture and Agrarian Society in the Bombay 
Presidency, 1850-1935 (Cambridge, 1985); Shirin Mehta, The Peasantry and 
Nationalism. A Study of the Bardoli Satyagraha (New Delhi, 1984); M. V. 
Nadkarni, Farmers’ Movements in India (New Delhi, 1987); Anthony Carter, 
Elite Politics in Rural India: Political Stratification and Political Alliance in 
Western Maharashtra (Cambridge, 1974); Ravinder Kumar, Western India in 
the Nineteenth Century: A Study of the Social History of Maharashtra 
(London, 1968); Michelle Burge McAlpin, Subject to Famine: Food Crisis and 


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Economic Change in Western India, 1860-1920 (Princeton, 1983); and 
Rosalind O’Hanlon, Caste, Conflict and Ideology: Mahatma Jotirao Phule 
and Low-Caste Protest in Western India (Cambridge, 1985). 

On Punjab, see Himadri Banerjee, Agrarian Society of the Punjab, 
1849-1901 (New Delhi, 1982); Richard G. Fox, Lions of the Punjab: Culture 
in the Making (Berkeley, 1985); and Richard Saumarez Smith, Rule by 
Records: Land Registration and Village Custom in Early British Panjab 
(Delhi, 1996). 

On Uttar Pradesh and Haryana, see Zoya Hasan, Dominance and Mobili- 
sation: Rural Politics in Western Uttar Pradesh 1930-1980 (New Delhi, 1989); 
Walter C. Neale, Economic Change in North India: Land Tenure and Reform 
in the United Provinces, 1800-1955 (New Haven, 1962); Gyanendra Pandey, 
The Ascendancy of the Congress in Uttar Pradesh, 1926-1934: A Study of 
Imperfect Mobilization (Delhi, 1978); Utsa Patnaik, Peasant Class Differentia- 
tion: A Study in Method with Reference to Haryana (Delhi, 1987); Asiya 
Siddiqi, Agrarian Change in a North Indian State: Uttar Pradesh, 1819-1833 
(Delhi, 1973); Majid Hayat Siddiqi, Agrarian Unrest in North India: The 
United Provinces, 1918-1922 (New Delhi, 1978); and Jagpal Singh, Captalism 
and Dependence: Agrarian Politics in Western Uttar Pradesh, 1951-1991 
(Delhi, 1992). 

On southern India, see David Arnold, The Congress in Tamil Nad: 
Nationalist Politics in South India 1919-1937 (Delhi, 1977); B. H. Farmer, 
ed., Green Revolution? Technology and Change in Rice-Growing Areas of 
Tamil Nadu and Sri Lanka (London, 1977); John Harriss, Capitalism and 
Peasant Farming: Agrarian Structure and Ideology in Northern Tamil Nadu 
(Delhi, 1982); Barbara Harriss-White, A Political Economy of Agricultural 
Markets in South India: Masters of the Countryside (New Delhi, 1996); 
Eugene F. Irschick, Politics and Social Conflict in South India: The Non- 
Brahman Movement and Tamil Separatism, 1916-1929 (Berkeley, 1969) and 
Dialogue and History: Constructing South India, 1795-1895 (Berkeley, 1 994); 
Robin Jeffery, The Decline of Nayar Dominance: Society and Politics in 
Travancore 1847-1930 (London, 1976); Susan Lewandowski, Migration and 
Ethnicity in Urban India: Migration in to Madras, 1870-1970 (Delhi, 1981); 
Joan P. Mencher, Agriculture and Social Structure in Tamil Nadu (Durham, 
1978); J. P. Pandian, Caste, Nationalism and Ethnicity: An Interpretation of 
Tamil Cultural History and Social Order (Bombay, 1987); Chitra Sivakumar 
and S. S. Sivakumar, Peasants and Nabobs: Agrarian Radicalism in Late 
Eighteenth Century Tamil Country (Delhi, 1993); T. C. Varghese, Agrarian 
Change and Economic Consequences: Land Tenures in Kerala, 1850-1960 
(Bombay, 1970); and David Washbrook, The Emergence of Provincial Politics: 
The Madras Presidency, 1870-1920 (Cambridge, 1976) and ‘Caste, Class and 
Dominance in Modern Tamil Nadu’, in Francine R. Frankel and M. S. A. 
Rao, Dominance and State Power in Modern India (Delhi, 1989, vol. 1 


Pp- 204-64). 


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