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Mainstream, VOL LII, No 10, March 1, 2014

Contemporaneity of the 1930s: Some Aspects of the Lives of Low-Caste Farm Labour in India

Monday 3 March 2014, by Kamal Nayan Kabra


The Social and Economic Conditions of the Lower Agricultural Castes in the Early 20th Century (A Survey of the Kotch State, Rajputana) by Ram Pratap Gondel; New India Publications, New Delhi; August 2010; pages 176; Rs 380.

The book that we intend to discuss is a dissertation written for the Master’s degree of the Lucknow University in Sociology and Economics in the early 1930s by Shri Ram Pratap Gondal—who is a centenarian. The task undertaken was to examine the conditions of farm labour coming mainly from the lower castes in the princely state of Kotah (presently spelled as Kota) in what was then known as Rajputana (now Rajasthan).

The study proceeds at two distinct levels. First, the profiling of the socio-economic conditions of a large group of persons connected with cultivation tied together as communities organised as hierarchically ranked castes with their inherited rigidity.

Second, the study acquires a special character as the study area was under indirect British rule on the basis of a power-sharing agreement with the native prince and its geographic feature of location in close proximity to the great Thar desert. Thus it also brings out the regional-spatial and socio-economic peculiarities of a princely state as these jurisdictions are different from the ones seen in what was called British India. Given the virtual absence of higher education and research facilities in the princely states, studies of local conditions by the local scholars is likely to have been rare. Hence this study rightly stands out as a filling a gap.

In substantive terms, the study shows how the individuals as well as the entire low agrarian castes began to redefine themselves, proscribing some activities connected with the caste and trying to move up not only economically but also in terms of the social hierarchy at the level of customary ranking and their vertical and horizontal relationships. These customary and informal relationships showed signs of a certain degree of malleability under the impact of the overall changing conditions in which the Indian society in all its aspects in general and that of the princely states in particular were operating. The chapters on “Caste Fissions and Accretion” “Social Barriers” and “Caste Panchayats” are really full of earthy insights which are generally at variance from the popular and shallow perceptions about the caste system, specifically about its recent past, as some sort of iron-like fixity and a bagful of negativities.

It is a study that goes on to bring out how the castes succumb to the temptation of novus nomo (a kind of Sanskritisation, one may surmise) by endeavouring to force their way into a higher caste while the latter try to prevent the lower castes from adopting or imitating their life-styles. The chapters on changes in social rules and marital regulations show the roots of these supposedly archaic and allegedly obnoxious rules and practices especially how and why they emerge from the real time need to ensure the safety, honour and dignity of the women and girl child while continuing to make use of them to supplement family resources and falling back on them to tide over their adverse circumstances.

However, these practices, according to the author, do not amount to reducing women to the status of chattel. In brief, the author unravels

the social mores, values, behaviour and intra-and inter-caste relations of these farm hands in which the family has a higher place than that of the caste.

It is also shown that among these low castes, about 85 per cent of the people living in these villages, hamlets were hierarchically divided. However, the dividing lines do not seem to be of the cast iron kind and seem to be giving way at many points thus creating a new and complex situation. The way in the mainstream and official discourse the entire Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes have been clubbed together ignoring the horizontal inequalities and differences and even their diverse rituals, antipathies and empathies, seems to be challenged by the facts brought out in the volume. This is not to deny the commonality in matters of treatment by the upper castes and inequalities in control over and access to useful productive resources and opportunities. But the changing economic scene and opportunities have impacted different castes, particularly the vagrant ones and those settled in regular habitats (though marked out not only spatially but also in other major matters too) differently. Thus a question-mark is put on the rationale of the clubbing together of all the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes under one common category for providing a special preferential dispensation to them in order to enable them to attain the basic initial position of equality. This is rightly considered an imperative to enable the hitherto socially excluded to participate in the country’s democracy and development and overcome their inborn social, economic and educational disabilities. However, what seem to be missed out are many serious differences, diversities and disabilities applicable to the specific components of all those who are placed under the general rubric of Dalits. At least this seems to be an implication that follows from the facts gathered and presented in the dissertation by Shri Gondal.

This appears to be a neglected question and may well be taken to be one that is worth exploring as to what have been the implications and outcomes of giving special treatment to all these lower castes as though they all stand among themselves and vis-a-vis the so-called twice-born ones on the same footing and as if the relationships of these diverse caste groups with their own identities, memories and roles in the social division of labour in general and specifically with the supposedly higher caste.groups are similar or even comparable. (For an analysis of such differences in the political arena, see Badri Narayan, 2011 for UP.) It has to be examined how these socio-economic and political gulfs are any less prominent or irksome or on the contrary tolerable vis-a-vis those that divide the larger social realty in somewhat more aggregated forms.

The author has drawn attention to some efforts made by some castes through the agency of the caste panchayats to rid themselves of the degrading occupations and habits or compulsions (such as carrion-eating of beef or dealing with dead animals or prostitution) by applying a kind of pressure of public opinion, including expulsion and myriad other kinds of physical, social and pecuniary punitive actions to give up the undesirable, demeaning, unclean and risky jobs involving back-breaking drudgery. Some of the practices, like widow marriage, naata, relative ease with which it is possible to change life-partners, (say, by paying jhagra money) ways and means of dealing with sex-related deviance are signs of the freedoms enjoyed by these castes from the middle-class morality and its consequences. True, urbanisation and common transport (such as trains) and other public facilities have forced the caste-conscious and caste-divided people to live and work in close proximity with the ‘other’ groups. But the general tenor of social relations and empathy show signs of reduced inter-group isolation and growing social interaction not only at the formal level but also in terms of shared activities and participation and adoption of roti-paani relations. Some inter-caste marriages too are reported. However, caste seems to play a role in the allocation of various social tasks and responsibilities, that is, in determining the social division of labour but with declining rigidity.

When one looks at the social reporting of the kind seen in the present volume one is led to ask a good number of questions of our current situation and the associated ways of working and thinking. In any case by drawing upon various secondary and ex cathedra sources and some relevant statistics, Shri Gondal has shown the evolution and changing conditions and at the same time also hinted at the way the dynamics of these well-being related and community relations of the agricultural castes operate. Sometimes one finds the direct role of the concerned communities themselves at the grassroots level, generally through the agency of the caste associations and panchayats to evolve in directions different from the status quo.

How these greatly differentiated groups relate themselves to their as well as the regional primary livelihood activity and its resource-base, that is, the resources like land, labour, forests, inherited and acquired skills and other common property resources, such as water, and the disposal of the flows of output exceeding their own current requirements in order to meet their other needs—both by means of market exchange and the jajmani-kamin system—have been brought out in the study report. The impact of forced as well as voluntary migration, at times by way of protest against unbearable oppression by walking away from the oppressive regimes or to meet the livelihood means during shortages in years of drought, too have been brought out. Operating the lands largely controlled by the three upper castes estimated to be about 10 per cent of the total population make the far more numerous lower castes dependent on the natural resources, mainly land (largely as tenant cultivators and hired workers with conventional kinds of payments, as reported by the author, to yielding place to the cash nexus as well) and their controllers. Overall the concrete conditions of their conjuncture in their diversity, complexity and emerging traits of flexibility necessitated by the changing conditions are chronicled in the study. Thus one is able to see how these people, who are greatly conscious of their identities and common futures, cope with the challenges of survival. An inkling of how the ethnocentricity and casual and even condescending approach of a lot of standard scholarship towards the ways and means evolved by these people themselves over centuries can hardly do justice to these complex aspects of reality can possibly be discerned in an embryonic form in the present narrative.

A combination of the nature, kinship and polity along with the unique features of the vagrant castes, many of them in the process of transition to a settled agrarian mode of life, adjusting their family, kinship and socio-economic and community links which evolved around the central activity of farming in the Kota region, seems to define the universe of the study. However, some comparative references to the rest of India too are scattered in it. Even a comparison of the labour inputs intensity as against the number of labourers engaged in agriculture makes the author refer to the Egyptian experience. It reminds one of the works in the early 1950s about disguised unemployment as a characteristic feature of the low-income countries of the Third world. One is reminded of a recent publication that shows how the Indian professional social science went a long way in anticipating and also advancing many insights that later became the staples of development economics. (Krishnamurty, J. 2008) Agriculture was then, just as it is today, the mainstay of the regional and lower castes’ economic life and constitutes a significant part of the problems that cripple the cultivating communities, even in the face of a certain degree of energetic growth of agriculture as a result of the Green Revolution. It is in this context that the study of the lower castes and their principal occupation of farming in the fast-changing colonial framework arouses a little more than historical curiosity and holds lessons for anyone concerned about the current problems.

Given the paucity of research studies of the grassroots conditions in the princely states in the pre-independence period based on field surveys, particularly concerning the tail-end castes (considered lower though it is their permanently ordained and immutable destiny), a study by a somewhat distant Lucknow University student going into the complex socio-economic factors surrounding their social existence is something that makes it worthy of serious consideration. Thus what we have is an exposition of the conditions of the poorest segment of our people struggling to eke out a living from traditional agriculture. The quote by the author that “poverty is the destruction of the poor” apparently holds a lesson or two for those who want the poor to wait indefinitely for the uncertain tide of growth to lift all the boats!

The study amply reflects the fact that it is a study for a course that combines Economics and Sociology as closely intertwined disciplines. Further, its publication after around seven decades may understandably make one wonder about its contemporary relevance apart from its intrinsic value as a historical narrative. What comes out vividly from the findings reported in the study after so much water has flown down both the Gomti and Chambal and notwithstanding all the speedy running in many crucial directions and with the powerful state interventions by independent and democratic India, is that the labour supply to the farm sector continues to be made predominantly by the lower castes and on similar terms leaving the working people unable to cross the hump of poverty, deprivation and intense social exclusion. The study shows that despite more or less regular participation of the women from these depressed castes on a sizeable scale and that despite big breakthroughs in farm techno-logy reflected in many times higher levels of production, the share of the lower labouring castes in the output flows remains grossly inadequate, uncertain and discriminatory on any criteria one may think of. Even intense indebtedness of most of the cultivators with all its negative features remains an inhibiting factor. Thus the results of the 1930s survey reported in the volume show how the post-1950 growth processes and their supplementation by positive discrimination continue to leave the hard core of the problem of India’s development unattended, especially the accentuation of horizontal inequalities insofar as the lower cultivating castes are concerned.

It is understandable that many social gender and matrimony-related practices reported by the study would upset many. But when one hears of the arbitrariness of the khaap panchayats, recurring honour killings and more or less willing submission to the loot, fraud and worse by the so-called gurus and swamis, a sense of deja vu strikes one. It raises questions about the values and institutional aspects of change. Even the Green Revolution areas are not free from these depredations. Thus once again one notes the contemporaneity, or as much of it as is feasible after over seven momentous decades, of the traits that prevailed during the 1930s. The author has raised questions regarding the use of women as chattel and mortgaging as collateral for loans, matters of prostitution as a caste-driven family-sanctioned calling leading to delayed higher-age marriages in some castes and so on. The abysmal lack of educational facilities and alternative occupations can well be related to these grim aspects of the lives of the vulnerable castes. However, such things cannot be appreciated and understood in isolation. The study shows how the power of castes and strong family ties remain relevant for imparting skills, running of family occupations, settlement of intra-family feuds and so on and how the compulsions of living are accommodated in changing mores and behavioural patterns. What has been dubbed as modernisation of traditions and the urge to adopt the life-styles and values of the so-called higher castes were found by the author to be prevalent in many castes of the princely states during the early 1930s. The persistent feature of the fate of the lower castes by way of their exploitation and exclusion associated with the unequal access to economic and natural resources and the caste-related disabilities and discrimination was also evidenced during the 1930s by the author.

Obviously the vulnerabilities arising from the harsh physical and climatic conditions were most pronounced for the depressed castes whether settled in definite habitats or the wandering, nomadic communities and the lower castes who were about 85 per cnt of the population. It is typical of their imperialist response that instead of responding positively with a humane touch or in terms of the much-touted enlightened self-interest to the gross inadequacy of the minimum of the means required for a regular participation in social affairs, something contrary to these imperatives was actually done under the colonial rule. It is this approach that continues to define the existence of dozens of vagrant communities who were forced to adopt whatever means they could in order to just survive. Instead of the integration and involvement of these people, let alone honouring their rights, culture and heritage in any sphere, the process of othering these people was carried forward to some ridiculous extent by the foreign rulers: they clamped down on them with a heavy hand not only militarily but also by declaring these communities as congenitally criminal sections en bloc and started hounding them as pariahs. Thus to be born in a tribe earned them the label of being a criminal! What the rulers failed to recognise was that it was the near total social exclusion of the people that made them vulnerable and left them with no option but to adopt the ways and means that anyone in such circumstances of being pushed to the wall would.

What has to be mentioned is how without any such dire compulsion we have seen robber barons and sellers of snake oils masquerading as successful and adored capitalist growth- agents. This is in addition to the no-holds-bared practices of primitive accumulation and the oppression of a large part of humanity for the wealth creation and modernisation missions of European and North American imperialism. It seems this story was repeated in a somewhat comparable fashion vis-a-vis the indigenous communities of Rajputana by the alien rulers in their dealings with the communities they termed as the criminal nomadic tribes! A study brought back to life by its publication after decades of hibernation surely seems to be justified by its contents, methods of analysis and implications for the present.

A Supplement

While archival material-based studies of the conditions prevalent in pre-independence Rajasthan have been appearing and many official records contain a mine of data on these aspects, there is a dearth of field studies of the socio-economic conditions, especially those that buttress the field insights by cross references to the information available in many official records such as various settlement and Census reports. It is in this context that I admire the work of Shri Ram Pratap Gondal which was done by him as a post-graduate student of Economics and Sociology of Lucknow University in the early 1930s. The study on the social and economic conditions of the lower agricultural castes in the early 20th century reports and analyses the results of a survey conducted in the Kotah (now spelled as Kota) State, Rajputana. In retrospect it appears significant that the results of this study have come out now in the public domain in the year 2010.

Surely it is uncommon for the studies of the post-graduate students to come out as published monographs, more so when they have remained locked in cupboards for all these long decades. But a careful perusal of this one concerning the lower castes in Kota shows how much would have remained hidden from the public eye had this post-graduate study was not brought out. A careful reader is bound to be struck by the fact that though so much water has flown down the Chambal during the eight eventful decades or so, the facts underlined by the survey of the conditions in the 1930s appear as the story of the rural hinterland around us. True, so much of what one sees around today was possibly beyond the visualisation of anyone living in those times. However, even to imagine that so much of the conditions would remain largely intact after independence and under democracy and state-led development and bear resemblance with the story of a remote princely state’s poor and downtrodden castes seen during the Depression-ridden 1930s appears to be a bewildering fact.

There were tribal resistance and revolts then and we have insurgency in the tribal lands today. How do we make sense of what the fate of the similarly placed people in India of today under the spell of the neo-liberal economic globalising dispensation? No doubt India is struggling to escape the internal disharmonies and the externally-originating adverse effects of the Great Global Recession-ridden early 21st century. But are the tribal people a part of the story of reviving the markets and their animal spirits that is non-economic and in the economic sense non-rational decisions-led growth?

Obviously we have many specific measures and institutions that try to make the depressed lower castes people assert and enjoy their rights. The democratic polity too gives some space to those who make use of their identities and their numerical strength for undoing the past injustices and in a way compel the top rungs to at least make a show of empathic disposition by mans of empty slogans such as inclusive growth. That some tangible but limited gains have accrued to the disadvantaged groups cannot be denied. But the rub lies in the relative proportions of those who seem to have remained where they were despite all the running and the vast absolute numbers of those who have missed the GDP-growth train during the past over six decades. Worse possibly is the cornering of the limited benefits by a small section of the targeted Dalit castes themselves and the absence of even a proper recognition of such cornering in the form of worsening horizontal inequalities. The deprivation and exclusion—despite so much being produced and so many technological advances—are no less unjust, demeaning and baneful even when the cornering is done by those who share some socio-economic and hereditary attributes, some elements of the identities, unless the processes that create new circuits of inequalities are broken or the expansion and sharing are in-built from the beginning as universal entitlements and a matter of rights over at the most a medium term with a clear roadmap for the future generalised sharing and caring.

The number of such excluded persons presently can easily be counted as a multiple of the number of the relatively disadvantaged ones that was observed during the 1930s by the post-graduate student who went to the field and collected information. Anyone interested in getting to know a really comparable picture has to wade through the pages of this slim volume, combining the working of the social and economic variables without privileging the one over the other. One need not emphasise how critical it is to give up the sterile debate over the social versus the economic and take them together as warranted by the ground reality and historical context.

Certainly a review can only give a broad overview of what is contained in this slim, well-written volume. But it can be asserted that this picture of the early 1930s is of considerable value for any student of long-term multi-faceted social change in India especially in some relatively disadvantaged parts of India such as Rajasthan (owing to it special circumstances of polity, geography and social mores, values and behavioural patterns). It appears that flagging at least the following is worthy of consideration even today. The lower castes are the predominant suppliers of farm labour and though the significance of the non-farm sector has grown it is the castes still considered lower ones which remain glued to agriculture to a substantial extent. (Jaya Mehta and others, 2011) What is special about the 1930s is the size of the vagrant groups and castes and their difficult and arduous journey towards settled life away from nomadic patterns. That there was little industrialisation by the 1930s and it was grossly inadequate to fill the void created by de-industrialisation (Thorner, D. 1962) forced people to remain cultivators in one capacity or the other, making the most of their inherited skills and brand image.

Today it seems such stickiness is due mainly owing to the character, the pattern or the qualitative aspects of modernity, industrial expansion and the growth of GDP. So much has been done (leaving aside the question how well and how appropriate) in an absolute sense for making a transition to an industrialised India and yet so little structural and absolute change is reflected in numbers, proportions and alternatives (to mention a few relevant in the context of the present study). Similarly the caste dimension of exclusion and deprivation tied to farm sector over-dependence for livelihoods but making a rather disproportionately less contribution to the flow of goods and services are too well-known facts. And yet it is hardly understood as signs of some deep-seated malaise afflicting the farm sector and the cultivators.

Actually when some telling evidence of such contradictions and dysfunctions is made known by official accounts and analyses and by some academic studies (Arjun Sen Gupta Commission studies), there arises some short-lived dismay and little else. Such a contemproneity of the 1930s straightaway strikes one going through the findings of this 1930s survey. How the caste system-related family life and the changing role of women labour in the process of transition from wandering life to settled rural-agricultural living with a sprinkling of the traditional activities and role in the social division of labour gives flexibility to labour supply demanded by a volatile agriculture can be regarded as a strong point of this integrated sociological and economic study. Indeed it is something present-day scholarship, focusing separately on the social, the economic and so on, would do well to take note of.

A noted economist, the author was a Professor of Economic Development and Decentralised Planning holding the Malcolm S. Adiseshiah Chair at the Institute of Social Sciences, New Delhi.