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Mainstream, Vol XLVIII, No 1, December 26, 2009 - Annual Number 2009

All-encompassing Economic History of Indian Peasantry

Saturday 26 December 2009, by Sekhar Bandyopadhyay


Peasant History of Late Pre-Colonial and Colonial India by Binay Bhushan Chaudhuri; Pearson Education, New Delhi; 2008; pp. xxv+939.

It is always difficult to review a book by a teacher. Such a review always tends to become a tribute rather than a critical analysis of the content and arguments of the book. And I will not even try to pretend that I have been able to avoid that pitfall here, for I learnt my first lessons in the economic history of India from Professor Binay Bhushan Chaudhuri. It is even more difficult to review a book which is 939 pages long, providing evidence of encyclopaedic knowledge of arguably one of the most senior and erudite historians of modern India. Professor Chaudhuri has behind him a lifetime of research and teaching in the economic history of India and that knowledge has been encapsulated in this book. I cannot simply hide the fact that I feel somewhat overwhelmed by the sheer weight of factual details and depth of analysis presented in this book. I am not competent to offer a critique, let me confess at the very outset. I will only try to introduce the book to the uninitiated readers, by summarising its thematic structure, analytical framework and complex theoretical arguments. For anyone interested in the economic history of the Indian peasants over the last three hundred years, this is one book that presents a discussion of almost everything that has been written on this subject up to this day.

The book focuses on two related themes about the peasant history of India: the economic variables directly affecting peasant agriculture and its social framework. The variables include land and labour, while the social framework includes the network of relationships within which the peasant worked, and the state that in many ways affected the world in which he lived and toiled. The peasant is defined broadly, and not in a cultural anthropological sense—not just as owner cultivator, but as anyone having a relationship with the process of agricultural production. The term thus includes agricultural labourers, and excludes the rentier class. The book proposes to represent a shift in analysis of peasant history from a preoccupation with ‘culture’ to a more nuanced focus on the ‘wider political and economic system’. (p. 4) The book thus seeks to restore solid economic history from the weary abstractions of cultural theories. However, it is not going back to the old fashioned empiricism of the past; every theoretical debate of the last two decades receives sophisticated and thorough re-examination in this book.

The book starts with the debate on the eighteenth century Mughal decline that has rocked the historical profession over the last decade. It critically re-examines the ‘revisionist’ position that has argued that the Mughal power did not decline; there was only a gradual decentralisation of power. And there was no overall economic collapse, as there was significant development and prosperity in the regions, where political chaos did not affect the autonomy of the economic life. Chaudhuri thinks that the debate has been inconclusive—as there is not enough evidence to prove the claim of the revisionists, while the traditionalists too perhaps overstretched some of their points. On the one hand there is no ground to believe that peasant economy was autonomous, as it was connected to wider polity and economy, and Mughal authority was far from symbolic. But, on the other hand, it was also true that the regional powers had an interest in economic development and political stability, although their abilities to ensure that need not be overemphasised. However, the major significance of the revisionist intervention, Chaudhuri thinks, lies in shifting the balance of analysis from the Centre to the regions, which has helped us better understand regional developments in the eighteenth century. The book provides a detailed analysis of the organisation of peasant economy in pre-colonial India. It argues that while the peasant economy had been integrated into the wider economic and political network, there were also some internally determined domains. In an internally differentiated village community the resident cultivators enjoyed precedence over the migrants, while the former were also differentiated and hierarchised by such social factors as clan, caste and religion. On the other hand, the autonomy of the village economy was broken by its relationships with the external credit networks, the state as well as various intermediaries.


While moving on to the colonial economy, Chaudhuri sounds a note of caution that in view of the paucity of realistic statistical data the economic historians of India should be careful about making generalisations, and this is true also for the colonial period for which we have a more systematised archive. The book discusses the impact of commercialisation and the long depression in Indian agriculture in selected regions like Bengal and Bombay Presidencies, parts of Madras Presidency, United Provinces, Punjab and the Central Provinces. The study is divided into two time-periods, the first century of colonial rule and the rest of it. In the late pre-colonial period, Chaudhuri argues, the causes for the decline of the agricultural economy—the extent of which varied widely from region to region—were ‘conjunctural’ rather than ‘structural’, related to the political instability of the period. But by contrast, the causes of the weakening of the colonial agricultural economy were ‘structural’, related to the wider polity and economy. In the early colonial period, as the Indian economy was integrated into the world market, the vicissitudes of that market as well as the fluctuations in the flow of bullion affected Indian agriculture, as did underinvestment in infra-structure like irrigation. The long depression in agriculture that this situation caused from around 1820 came to an end by about 1845 due to a variety of reasons. Since 1855 the role of the state diminished and the market forces became more significant. But the state continued to claim the bulk of the peasant surplus in the form of high revenue demand. It remained responsible for investment in agriculture, but did not fulfil its obligations. These two factors, along with such other factors as population growth, movement of agricultural prices and commercialisation continued to affect the peasant economy in this period in varying degrees in different regions. The book discusses these developments with exhaustive details.

As for peasant responses to the market forces, this book argues that subsistence agriculture and commercial agriculture not distinctively separate, but were organically linked to each other. Producing for market was not a new experience for peasants in the colonial period; what was new, however, was the nature of the market, its commodity composition, its organisation and its linkages with the international market and the ties with the changing British economy. The peasants responded to these factors in myriad ways. The discussion of these responses are organised around a few cash crops, like opium, indigo, silk and sugarcane before the 1850s, and jute, cotton, sugarcane and wheat for the subsequent period. The book questions the received wisdom that cultivation of cash crops was always involuntary. Market certainly played a role and the peasants responded to the market forces in a rational way. But, of course, this rational choice worked under certain limits. Other themes discussed in this book in relation to the peasant economy are the rural credit system, the power of the moneylenders and their control over rural society, ‘differentiation’ in peasant society and the process through which rich peasants established their control over the poorer peasants, the institution of bonded labour in selected regions and its gradual weakening towards the late colonial period. The book delves deep into all the various debates related to these issues.

In contrast to the settled peasantry, the changes of the colonial period affected the tribal society in very different ways and these constitute the second part of this book. Chaudhuri prefers to use the term ‘adivasi’, but does not dismiss ‘tribe’ as a mere colonial construct. For tribal society and economy, he thinks, were not static concepts. They developed certain special features under certain specific historical conditions, like ‘settled’ cultivation based on the plough use, a particular type of social organisation. Changes in these organisations affected the agricultural system; but the nature and extent of these changes varied from region to region. In this book two distinct regions have been studied—the Oraon-Munda and the Santal regions of eastern India. In both cases the crucial factor for change was the intrusion of a centralised state, in one case before colonial rule and in the other with the advent of the colonial regime. Rough ecology and lack of infrastructure were other factors behind the slow growth in agriculture, as was the ruthless suppression of their insurrections in 1831-32 (Munda) and 1855-56 (Santal). The collective communal organisation of agriculture in these regions also rapidly changed due to the intrusion of outsiders.

The last chapter deals with the colonial state’s control over forest resources and how that affected four distinct communities, namely, the settled peasants using forest land, tribal groups involved in settled cultivation but also using forest resources, pastoral and nomadic groups and shifting cultivators. The zealous assertion of the sovereign authority by the colonial state and intrusion of outsiders directly impinged upon the economies of the forest dwellers; their resistance to such intrusion only achieved partial success.

As to the final question, whether or not colonial rule brought in any fundamental change in India’s agricultural economy, Chaudhuri carefully weighs the two views—‘nationalist’ and ‘revisionist’. He partly agrees with the revisionist view that colonial rule only built on pre-existing indigenous institutions and the changes that took place were not just because of the colonial state; there were many other factors too that contributed to those changes and their magnitude was restricted by the power of the local elites. Indeed, the power of the state to effect agrarian change diminished over the years. However, he also does not want to under-estimate the power of the colonial state either. No doubt it built on pre-colonial institutions, but they were significantly modified to suit the specific purposes of the state.

This book is a synthetic, balanced, all encompassing economic history of the Indian peasantry during the late pre-colonial and colonial period. Its primary focus is on the agricultural economy; social and political factors are introduced where they are necessary to explain economic changes. It is going to be a compulsory reading for all students and researchers of economic history of India.

Prof Sekhar Bandyopadhyay is the Deputy Dean, Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences, Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand.

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