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On the Degradation of Mobility in Early Colonial India

T C A Achintya ( is an MPhil Research Scholar at the Department of History, University of Delhi.

This article considers the role of migration in the ability of communities to negotiate with the state in early colonial India. Both the causes and impact of the degradation of this ability are examined; the argument builds on and expands on work by Parthasarathi and others to make a case for exploring migration on a pan-regional scale. The article explores the ideological rooting and impact of the approach; it proposes that in conjunction with traditional arguments relating to economics and society, military recruitment played a key role in the evolution of policy aimed at suppressing mobility among peasant and cultivator classes in early colonial India.

The ability to move—to uproot ourselves and relocate—both as individuals and as communities, is an important aspect of labour studies and labour history. The nature of settlements, migration patterns, and the composition of settled and migratory populations have been examined by academics in a variety of ways, and may be included within many disciplines. This article examines the role migration played in the formulation of agrarian policy in early colonial India. In particular, this article considers the implications that community movement had on British thought in the formulation of their policies. The article also highlights the considerations that would have factored into British agrarian, landholding, and revenue policies, especially regarding the question of mobility.

Prasannan Parthasarathi’s (2014b) work on the transition to colonial economy in South India and his arguments on societal conditions and the role of mobility play an important role in this article. The argument presented in this article can be seen as an elaboration of Parthasarathi’s work, but in conjunction to a wider set of factors, regions, and communities. The essence of Parthasarathi’s argument is that the ability to migrate on a whim and walk out of agreements in times of distress or in the face of pressure from the opposing party played a crucial role in production systems among weavers and agrarian labourers in South India. Parthasarathi’s argument focuses primarily on weaver communities, though he also devotes a chapter to agrarian labourers (2004a: 121–49). He explores the long-standing debate on the wealth of the precolonial producer and agrarian labourer communities; he challenges the academic mainstream view which framed these communities, particularly those that were lower in caste hierarchies, as being impoverished and lacking in power. This view had emerged as a counterpoise to an earlier narrative in which such communities were seen as wealthy and competitive in the precolonial era, and which blamed their degradation on colonial practices. Weavers, in particular, have received significant attention in these debates. Parthasarathi points out that while in quantitative terms, the material prosperity of the communities in question may not have been high, their communal prosperity and strength were quite high. One factor that contributed to their strength was their freedom to move.

The evidence of this freedom and strength lies in the fact that the demand for the activities of these communities (agrarian labourers and weavers) far outstripped the total supply. Thus, there were always people looking to employ them and this, in turn, meant that an employer or contractor1 constantly had to ensure that those contracted with him stayed. An inability to retain workers, either due to his actions or outside pressures, could result in the weavers or labourers simply relocating with their meagre possessions to find different employers. Clearly, the simplicity of their material existence was a part of the community’s strength. Parthasarathi argues that the political set-up prior to the imposition of colonial practices was such that these communities were not restrained from relocating. Thus, their bargaining power in negotiating contracts was enormous.2

Equally important to Parthasarathi’s argument is the degradation of the position of these communities. Through an examination of colonial practices and policies, Parthasarathi shows that the restrictions imposed on the movement of weaving and labour communities3 were crucial to the economic and social degradation of these communities. By dealing with Indian modes of trade and imposing their vision of contract and trade on Indian communities, the British East India Company (from here on referred to simply as East India Company or Company) ended up changing the balances of power. Producing communities such as weavers and agrarian labourers found their status diminished while the position of merchants, traders, and various landholding communities were simultaneously strengthened.

The main contention of this article is that the issue of migration was not merely limited to communities in South India. A similar set of practices were followed by agrarian communities involved in cultivation processes in Bengal.4 Reading the primary sources in conjunction with the arguments of historians such as Wilson and Parthasarathi allows us to project an assertion that explains the widespread prevalence of migration. A more generalised contention is that the freedom to migrate was central to the collective strength of production communities. For much of its history, India was a land where the total area under cultivation was vastly lower than the total cultivable area (Raychaudhuri et al 1983: 17, 157, 230, 364, 525, 917). Towards this end, we note that the demand for agrarian labour must have consistently been greater than its total availability.5

The “threat” of leaving with impunity gave to the cultivator and agrarian communities leverage in negotiations with landholder communities such as the zamindars and talukdars.

Intervention of the Colonial State

With the grant of the Diwani in 1765 given by the Mughal emperor, Shah Alam II, following the battle of Buxar in 1764, the East India Company became the territorial power in Bengal and eastern Bihar, and was acknowledged as such by its neighbouring territories. In 1772, with the passing of Lord North’s Regulating Act, the Bengal Presidency became the seat of British power in India. However, the first governor-general of Bengal, Warren Hastings, was not a power unto himself. He was a member of a governing council and his ability to act was largely circumscribed by the council. Many historians have remarked on the conflicts between Hastings and Philip Francis, the physiocrat whose 1776 plan became the basis of Cornwallis’ Permanent Settlement.6

Francis’s plan of 1776, and the discourse by administrators such as Hastings, are at the heart of the argument here. The British administrators of the company were fundamentally opposed to the system of migration as it existed. They sought to establish a more fixed notion of settlement and landholding for a variety of reasons (explained below), and in doing so, eradicate the free movement of primary producers. Both Hastings and Francis have alluded to a system wherein cultivators and agrarian producers were free to move around, but they had sharply divergent opinions about it. For instance, Francis said,

I know not whether, in ancient times, the Ryots constantly took out pottahs or not. They derived a better security against ill-treatment from the natural interest and relation, by which they and the zemindars were mutually bound to each other. This security, so much superior to any formal engagement the present system promises to restore. By establishing a quit-rent for each zemindar, we make it the interest of the zemindar to extend his cultivation to the utmost; which can only be done by encouraging the resort of Ryots, and by letting his lands on such favourable terms as may excite their industry. I have heard it asserted, that formerly, when a Ryot quitted any zemindar’s lands, he followed him and used every motive of persuasion to prevail on him to return; and that the zemindars were accustomed to bribe away each others’ tenants. (Francis 1782: 61–62)7

On the other hand, Hastings retained a more cynical view about this phenomenon, as he noted:

It is to be observed also, that there are two kinds of Rieats. The more valuable are those who reside in one fixed spot, where they have built themselves substantial houses, or derived them by inheritance from their fathers. These men will suffer much before they abandon their habitations, and therefore they are made to suffer much; but when once forced to quit them, they become vagrant Reiats. The vagrant Reiats,8 as Mr Francis observes, have it in their power in some measure to make their own terms with the zemindars. They take land at an under rent, hold it for one season; the zemindar then increases their rent, or exacts more from them than their agreement, and the Reiats either desert, or, if they continue, they hold their land at a rent lower than the established rent of the country. (Francis 1782: 154; emphases mine)

Thus, the British administrators found that many communities favoured a mobile existence. Another example of a community moving in the face of disruption is in the famous (or infamous, depending on one’s perspective) Rangpur Dhing of 1783, a widespread peasant insurgency. Absconding in the face of intolerable policies was considered a right by the Ryots,9 one which they pleaded for to the British administrators.10 The suppression of these rights by British administrators and their agents11 was articulated as a grievance and has been considered a crucial factor in the spread of discontentment in the region. The expression of migration as a right indicates its degree of importance, and historians across the board have recognised it. Firminger reported a statement made by a Raiyat: “You are head of one country, we have a thousand countries to go to, you are chief, we are Ryotts [raiyats], you will therefore order us justice” (as cited in Wilson 2005: 5). This emphasis by Wilson is an example of its recognition by historians. This existence gave workers some leverage in their negotiations with zamindars and talukdars. As Francis observed, this type of system meant that landholders needed to constantly placate their cultivators.

These divergent opinions also led to diverging approaches toward the plan being discussed. Francis noted that excessive taxation by the state was at the heart of the agrarian decline of Bengal (1782: 29, 40, 49). His survey of the situation led him to develop a plan that called for a permanent fixing of revenues and agreements; the plan insisted that zamindars reach fixed agreements with their cultivators, which they were not free to change. Francis (1782: 62) wanted to avoid the system as it existed at the time; he described it as confused, and replaced it with a more formal set of agreements and contracts. From his statements, we can deduce an attempt to suppress the established migratory system. The idea was to keep the cultivators fixed, since it ensured a stable flow of revenue. While Francis envisaged the ultivator–zamindar agreement as fixed only as long as rent was controlled and the agreement was mutually consented to, he was nonetheless happy to place the onus of “keeping the peace” on the zamindar. Making the principal landholders responsible for internal stability meant that the same group that was responsible for maintaining agreements would also hold the tools of coercion. Francis did not envisage the government “descending to the level of the Ryot” (1782: 29).

Francis’s language, despite having an otherwise positive perception of the migratory system, nonetheless conveys a belief in the need to settle cultivators rather than letting them move about. For instance, the use of the term “desertion” (1782: 68) crucially demonstrates that Francis considered the agreement and contract as supreme. Parthasarathi (2004: 141) has shown that the emphasis on sustaining agreements and enforcing British style contracts is what led to the degradation of the peasant class in South India; thus, he points to a system that was determined to break the power of the cultivator. Hastings is much more explicit than Francis, and despite the agreement between the rivals on the need to immobilise cultivators, he described their mobility in much harsher terms, saying that cultivators had “flown off from their engagements” (as cited in Firminger 191718: 219) and “absconded.”12

Both Hastings and Francis, however, would agree that the zamindar owned the land (Francis 1782: 153). The cultivator was merely protected against dispossession so long as they paid “rent.” The reduction of the cultivator to a mere tenant, and the strict enforcement of contracts and agreements that bound the cultivators, and the vesting of zamindars with the power to enforce peace, had the cumulative effect of severely curtailing the power of the agrarian labour community. By destroying the community’s mobility, the state significantly weakened their bargaining power, leading to the agrarian and peasant degradation that historians have commented on. Moreover, Parthasarathi’s argument about the agrarian community in South India can be extended to Bengal, where the state embarked on a campaign to degrade mobility, arguably even before it did so in South India. Ultimately, Francis’s vision was simply to leave the zamindars and Ryots to themselves (as cited in Guha 1981: 90–96 and Firminger 1917–18: 304), and when Hastings eventually concurred, the idea to degrade the mobility of people through a rigid system of contracts took root in the state, even as power began to shift to the zamindar class.

The essence of these ideas was at the core of the Permanent Settlement agreement enacted by Cornwallis. As Ranajit Guha (1981) noted, Cornwallis was sympathetic towards the landholding classes and sought to strengthen their hold. Drawing inspiration from Francis’s plan, the Permanent Settlement created a system that fixed rents, but also conferred the zamindar class with enormous powers to coerce cultivators (Bandyopadhyay 2004). The state aided this system, as authors have noted, by enforcing rigid notions of how a contract functions, thus curbing the ability of cultivators to renegotiate or move. With the heavy revenue burden that was placed on the zamindars, the zamindars, in turn, completely exploited cultivators so as to satisfy these demands. The long-term effect was the disastrous degradation of the cultivator community. While the colonial state would eventually implement other plans, it nonetheless absorbed the strong ideals of suppressing movement and migration; authors in disparate fields have noted this. For instance, Radhika Singha (2000) has noted that notions of enumeration and policing were intrinsically tied to the philosophy of controlling free movement. Similarly, Prathama Banerjee (2000) has noted that the state sought to curb the movement and customs of nomadic and semi-nomadic communities in encounters with forest communities and “tribal” societies.

The suppression of movement and migration—the settlement of communities—with the use of force and coercion became a central tenet of the colonial state, and played a critical role in the degradation of agricultural communities. As Wilson points out, stalling mobility proved critical to the process of impoverishing cultivators because the coercive powers of the landholding communities were strengthened. Additionally, landholders were forced to exercise their coercive powers in the face of demands for higher revenue. Wilson considers this an important contributor to peasant alienation and the consequent peasant rebellions. Since they could no longer tap the enormous demand for their services by moving to favourable locales, these communities lost their negotiation power, and in the process, found themselves at the mercy of those who exploited, and eventually degraded, their social and economic standing. While rebellion (the Rangpur Dhing of 1783, for instance) was an option utilised in the face of intolerable conditions, the enormous disparity in strength meant that the peasant classes were, for the most part, unable to prevent this.

The Military Angle

Where did the motivation to suppress mobility originate? As authors such as Guha and Bandyopadhyay have noted, it stemmed partly from purely economic and administrative conditions. The new set-up allowed the state to increase revenue, made it easier to enumerate and control communities, and made communities conform to a more anglicised vision of landowner–cultivator relations. I am of the opinion that this vision was, in part, founded on purely British ideology and motivations. The British state had not previously encountered the kind of demand for cultivator communities that these groups had in relation to the Indian land supply, save for a brief period in the aftermath of the Black Death (Hilton and Dyer 2003). In response to the spike in demand, the state enacted severe laws to prevent the free movement of serfs (Prestwich 2005), and, at times, even free peasants (Ormrod 1996). Thus, the entrenched notion of favouring landholding classes over cultivators seeking to use their ability to move as a bargaining chip was a part of British history and ideology.

One overlooked aspect is the military. Historians such as Seema Alavi (2006: 11–95)and Dirk Kolff (1990) have noted the existence of a military labour market.13 The crux of the argument is that the 18th century was an era in transition with regard to military culture. With the slow decline of the Mughal military culture, communities were shifting to peasant-based infantry-centric armies. The British were reliant on the military for their power, and the Bengal Army, the premier arm of East India Company’s power, constituted upper-caste peasant communities from western Bengal and eastern Bihar, drawing primarily from the landholding communities. This was in response to the way military traditions were shaping up, with other powers such as Awadh also drawing on upper-caste landholding communities for their military strength.

The East India Company was eager to push further west because of the belief that superior troops could be assembled from wheat-growing territories (Alavi 2006). In addition, their ideology of recruiting from the landholding elite was already established. Thus, we may note that there was an inherent need for the British to favour the classes that were potential military recruits. The ideologies of administrators, from Hastings to Cornwallis, in favouring the landholding elite over the cultivators, must consider this militaristic factor; ensuring stability and prosperity for the landholding elite was a must. Another factor we consider when discussing migration and movement is the ebb and flow of the military labour market. Restricting the movement of cultivators not only helped to strengthen the recruitment base of the Bengal Presidency Armies, but it also meant depriving the cultivators of political power, which would empower and strengthen the landholding elite. Destabilising the flow of revenue for rivals by destabilising their agrarian systems while strengthening their own had militaristic and economic implications, thus making it easier for the East India Company to expand its political, and eventually territorial, grasp. A conjunction can also be made in Alavi’s (2006) and Banerjee’s (2000) theses to show that, in controlling movement, the British state was also experimenting by creating new pools of recruits to exploit.

This shows that imperatives of military strategy and control and military culture were as critical to the suppression of mobility and migration by the colonial state as ideology, British customs and laws, and economic imperatives. Thus, a convergence of factors led to the state developing a strong position against the free movement of communities, which seeped into its ideology and structure, and guided many of the laws and policies that it enacted. These practices also had disastrous consequences for the social and economic well-being of communities, and while some of this impact has been examined by historians such as Parthasarathi, the impact on communities in other parts of India remains unexamined. At the very least, a common pattern of behaviour and outcomes can be outlined, as has been attempted here.


1 The term is used in a generic sense to describe any individual or community who entered into service agreement. Merchants and cloth traders would be contractors for the weavers, and landholders and other communities involved in the control of agricultural lands would contract labourers.

2 In historical terms, contracts or agreements should not be seen as fixed in time, but instead as continuous dialogues. Therefore, a contract or agreement is a constant process of bargaining, especially when considering such things in the broad context of historical trends and between communities. It is my belief that Dr Parthasarathi would agree with this interpretation of contracts and the influence it has had on the interpretation of his work in this article.

3 Something the colonial state was able to do as its political power expanded.

4 Substantiated in the Intervention of the Colonial State; see passages of Francis and Hastings (Francis 1782) in conjunction with Jon Wilson’s (2005) arguments.

5 Particularly skilled cultivators, rather than simple manual labourers.

6 Several historians have commented on this and the different dimensions they disagreed on, and even Firminger devoted an entire chapter to the feud (Firminger 1917–18). For instance, see Marshall (1965). With regard to their differences on agrarian policy, however, the best guide would likely be Ranajit Guha (1981:

7 The passages quoted from this text have all been slightly modified for better readability. Minor alterations to the text (such as replacing the letter f with s, where appropriate) have been made to this end. The structure and construction of the passages have not been tampered with, nor have any changes been made that would alter the meaning of the passage. All original spellings have been retained.

8 It is worth noting that in my perusal of the text, I was unable to find Philip Francis’ use of the term “vagrant”.

9 See, for instance, the statements by Ryots to the Rangpur Commission from Kaviraj (1972: 51–52).

10 There is debate as to the nature of the uprising and the quality of the engagement. Jon Wilson (2005) takes a contrarian position to the one made by Kaviraj (1972).

11 In the case of the 1783 Dhing, Richard Goodlad, the collector of Rangpur, and his native agent, Debi Singh.

12 Interestingly, even in reporting comments from natives, administrators utilise these terms, lending strong credibility to the arguments of Guha (1988) on the need to deconstruct the language of authors of an archive.

13 Essentially, there was a large pool of communities that were available for recruitment into militaries, and this labour market was heavily contested, as control of the market granted dominance to the community that controlled and monopolised it.


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Bandyopadhyay, S (2004): From Plassey to Partition, New Delhi: Orient Blackswan.

Banerjee, P (2000): “Debt, Time and Extravagance: Money and the Making of ‘Primitives’ in Colonial Bengal,” Indian Economic Social History Review, December.

Firminger, W K (191718): The Fifth Report from the Select Committee of the House of Commons on the Affairs of the East India Company, Date 28th July, 1812.

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— (2004b): The Transition to a Colonial Economy: Weavers, Merchants and Kings in South India 17201800, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

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Wilson, J E (2005): “‘A Thousand Countries To Go To’: Peasants and Rulers in Late Eighteenth-Century Bengal,” Past & Present, pp 81109. November.

Updated On : 13th Feb, 2018


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