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The Bihari Peasantry

Speaking of Peasants: Essays on Indian History and Politics in Honor of Walter Hauser by William Pinch

BOOK REVIEWEconomic & Political Weekly EPW march 14, 2009 vol xliv no 1131The Bihari PeasantryManish K ThakurIt is indeed refreshing to come across a singular volume devoted to an erudite treatment of peasant history and poli-tics at a time when discourses of a disap-pearing peasantry have led to a substan-tial decline and fragmentation of what was once the vibrant scholarly field of peasant studies. One is not sure if the present volume, comprising 17 essays and organised in five parts, signals a revival of academic interest in the much contested category of Indian peasantry. Yet, one can safely assert (the subtitle and the editorial introduction make it amply clear) that it is as much a cerebral celebration of the peasantry as it is of Walter Hauser’s career as an institution-builder and historian who introduced Bihari peasants and their struggles to the US academy. This much-delayed publication of the papers presented at “Hauserfest” during 23-25 May 1997 at the University of Virginia, Charlottesville, introduces us to the con-tributions of a generation of scholars whom Hauser nurtured and encouraged to work on different aspects of the history and politics of Bihar.The outcome, in retrospect, appears to have been worth the wait. We find here a revisit to the dimensions of history that mattered to the peasantry as the term has contentiously been understood in history and anthropology. We encounter an engage-ment with the questions that have been staple to the field: class contradictions within the peasantry and their multiple identifications, including caste and reli-gion, the question of peasant leadership and its cultural and religious correlates, aspects of commerce and commercialisa-tion, agrarian struggles, religious beliefs and practices, artisanship and human ecology, and the place of peasants in the colonial-imperial epistemology. In its totality, the volume presents an understandingofthe world of those who are tiedupwithlandin endless permutations and combinations of the historically evolving tenurial regimes. Given the range and breadthofquestions soughttobeanswered, it is but natural that the essays vary not only in their quality but also in terms of theoretical frame-works that they employ to unravel the much-debated terrain of peasant politics.Impact of the Colonial StateThus, Peter Robb, in his essay, “From Law to Rights: The Impact of the Colonial State on Peasant Protest in Bihar”, asserts that the colonial state played a crucial part in shaping identity and politics, including peasant activism. Taking agrarian policies as his point of departure, he discounts the possibility of an unambiguous class iden-tity for cultivators. While detailing the context wherein the colonial state entered the indigenous setting with far-reaching legal and administrative changes, he finds the discourse of the peasant and the or-ganised peasant protest as contingent upon this encounter if not totally deriva-tive of it. In his reading, the collective ex-perience of the new laws and new rights laid down the conditions for the emer-gence of peasant associations. The latter were not simply caste associations by other name. Instead, they had emergent anti-landlord rhetoric and an armoury of tenancy rights. In other words, social cate-gories were of a mixed basis. Caste, tenure and occupation fused together without any one of them being decisive. It was this fusion and the increasing awareness to a discourse of rights that facilitated an easyreception among the peasantry to the not-so-original diagnoses of peasant conditions by peasant leaders like Swami Sahajanand Saraswati.According to him, very little would have been possible except under the circumstances that colonialism helped create – especially the access to intel-lectual trends, theories and methods, some of it through the English language (p 50). Arguably, Robb credits colonial rule for making available a different vocabulary to Indians agitating for agrarian and other rights. Here, official categorisations and policies become privileged sites engender-ing contested politics of rights and the consolidation of interest-constellations as well as their organised articulations.We are only too aware that scholars have contested such a privileging of the processes of legal classification and the at-tendant politicisation of issues such as poverty and oppression. Such scholars have looked for an alternative sense of peasant community in terms of religious and social attitudes. Very often, existing and continuing socio-religious relations have appropriated the working of official categorisations to their own end as such categorisations have impinged upon religious-social movements inspired by older texts and traditions. Viewed thus, Robbis judicious in his current assertion that “upward mobility for an agrarian caste within a Hindu hierarchy (for exam-ple) could be of a type with demands for rights as a tenant, honour as a cultivator, and profit as a producer” (p 50). Though, his overall schema of peasant mobilisation is essentially linked to the evolution of the state and its standardisations, the emergence of new institutions, professions and expectations, the growth, increased spread and reduced cost of communica-tions, through transport, language and print, the increasingly shared economic and political experiences, the awareness of western ideas in relation to individual or equitable rights. Not only colonial rhetoric emphasised given identities of language, tribe, caste or community, and British policies helped define class inter-ests, pre-colonial inheritances equally channelled western influence. After all, European categorisations were not inscribed on a clean slate but had to con-tend with a set of historically enduring social relations.Nationalist PoliticsMajid H Siddiqi examines the interpene-tration of peasant movements and nation-alist politics. One need not belabour the point that the complexity of the character of the Indian nation is linked to the com-plexity of the agrarian struggles that underpinned it. What is striking is that most of the peasant movements in some Speaking of Peasants: Essays on Indian History and Politics in Honor of Walter Hauserby William Pinch(New Delhi: Manohar), 2008; pp 504, Rs 1,195.
BOOK REVIEWEconomic & Political Weekly EPW march 14, 2009 vol xliv no 1133(p 79) may have loosened its hold over the latter had the Congress Socialist faction not forced the party to at least tacitly adopt a semblance of a Marxist orientation to peasant mobilisation. In fact, Gould’s use of the expression “babas, non-cooperators and revolutionaries” (p 79) assumes that tenants had class-driven concerns whereas the Congress leadership had nationalist concerns. Be that as it may, a Marxist mil-lennium was never on the political agenda of the cultivating elite and middle castes who were more interested in obtaining legal titles to the lands they cultivated as tenants of different sorts. Of course, local level elections opened up the class cleav-ages based on status discrepancies bet-ween high caste and middle caste cultiva-tors and they percolated upward through the political system by way of democratic use of the power of ethnic solidarity and numbers. Middle castes owner-cultivators finally did succeed in challenging the authority of the long-entrenched upper caste establishments.Charan Singh was the principal architect of the middle caste reclassification who frequently made use of the class attributes of the middle castes as an increasingly self-conscious basis for differential political mobilisation. In the words of Gould, in the culturally multiplex world of Indian society, interest-based mobilisation, howso-ever universalistic, can hardly avoid en-meshment in the particularising power of the ethnically structured social formation that prowl the country’s democratically structured political arenas (p 102). Expectedly, no single uniform “class thesis” can provide a basis to account for variations in social context, historical time and systematic economic factors in a large and diversified country like ours. At most, one can discern certain common threads running through the historical manifesta-tions of agrarian unrest. For example, caste hierarchies have everywhere corre-lated with differing relationships to the means of production: “land controllers have been concentrated in the higher castes, small-scale cultivators and tenants have come from middle range castes, and landless labourers have come from the lower castes” (p 103). Depending onthe regional agrarian system and culture, details would vary but the underlying structural relationships have always had the potential for class formation and class conflict. And, such relationships have embodied inequities in wealth, social condition and status deprivation reach-ing critical levels of intolerability. But, we know that mere intolerability of con-ditions does not lead to protest and mobi-lisations. Other critical features go into its making and they have been issues of scholarly debates and perspectival and ideological stances.Bhakti and EmpireWilliam R Pinch’s paper, “Bhakti and the British Empire”, underlines the need to ac-cord more attention to religion and reli-gious belief for a fuller understanding of what empire meant to the individuals who lived it. He contests the recent post- colonial depictions of British India as a site of unidirectional mental colonisation by a rationalising scientific empire on a pliable, pre-modern Orient. For him, religious cul-ture offers us a peep into the world of peasant mobilisations. This is in synch with his overall emphasis on reading Bhakti into British Indian history. In his frame-work, British-Indian experience cannot be reduced to colonial antipathy enacted in racism, violence, anxiety and displace-ment. He joins issue with the mainstream historiography of colonialism that dis-counts Indian participation in empire and fails to acknowledge that British India was more of an imperial than colonial entity.James R Hagen looks at the environ-mental contexts of food and agrarian rela-tions in the Gangetic plain where biomass depletion and arable expansion were marked by a continuing supply of cultiva-ble lands. As the availability of these in-creasingly marginal soils came to an end towards the close of the 19th century, the stark picture of rural social distress began to appear. In his reckoning, limits to biomass-abundant extensive agriculture made the Gangetic middle region the epi-centre and most active area of peasant-land conflict in south Asia. Christopher V Hill probes the colonial construction of sedentary agriculture in Jharkhand. Euro-pean perceptions of the function of nature and the characteristics that defined civili-sation and modernisation-led the Raj to view swidden agriculture along with hunting and gathering as economically backward and socially dangerous. To a large extent, the characteristics that made adivasis dif-ferent in the eyes of the Empire are inextri-cably linked to hierarchical evaluations of different modes of agriculture.Arvind Narayan Das explores the eco-nomic context, ideology and programmes of peasant movements in colonial Bihar. Traces of economic determinism are clear-ly marked in his exposition of the move-ment-led by Swami Sahjanand Saraswati. Peter Gottschalk and Mathew N Schmaltz discuss their understanding of the Bihari peasant life through their project of con-structing a virtual village as a pedagogic tool. Sho Kuwajima reflects on the Reora Satyagraha of 1939 and forcefully brings out the contradictory pulls experienced by peasant activists between their attach-ment to land and the social ideals such as cooperative farming presented by the socialist leadership. Interestingly, his delineation of women’s participation in themovement offers rich insights for those interested in gender dimensions of peasant movements. Other essays include Stuart Corbridge’s “The Scheduled Tribes and the Reservations System in Jharkhand” and Harry W Blair’s comparative take on success and failure of rural development programmes in Bihar, Maharashtra and Bangladesh.In its entirety, the volume is a valuable addition to the existing scholarship on peasant politics in India. Even as it does not offer groundbreaking lines of enquiry and may create a sense of déjà vu for the students of peasant politics and history, some of the essays have the potential to guide explorations of fresh perspectives and analytical tools. What is praiseworthy is the putting together of a plurality of theoretical and historiographic approaches under the covers of a single volume. And, this eclecticism has equally been an emi-nent characteristic of Walter Hauser’s scholarship. In this sense, the volume turns out to be an appropriate and mean-ingful Festschrift to Walter Hauser and through him, a fitting intellectual tribute to the heroic and not-so-heroic struggles of Bihari peasants – both historical and contemporary.Email:
march 14, 2009 vol xliv no 11 EPW Economic & Political Weekly34Books ReceivedAerthayil, Mathew (2008):Impact of Globalisation onTribals: In the Context of Kerala(Jaipur, New Delhi: Rawat Publications); pp 180, Rs 495. – (2009): The Oxford India Elwin: Selected Writings (New Delhi: Oxford University Press); pp xxii + 351, Rs 795.Balakrishnan, Rajiv (2008): Social Development in Independent India(Delhi: Pearson Education); pp xiv + 274, Rs 600.Banerjee-Dube, Ishita and Saurabh Dube, ed. (2009): Ancient to Modern: Religion, Power, and Commu-nity in India(New Delhi: Oxford University Press); pp x + 388, Rs 750. Basrur, Rajesh M, ed. (2009): Challenges to Democracy in India (New Delhi: Oxford University Press); pp x + 299, Rs 595.Baviskar, B S and George Mathew (2009): Inclusion and Exclusion in Local Governance: Field Studies from Rural India (New Delhi: Sage Publications); pp xiv + 453, Rs 750. Bhaumik, T K (2009): Old China’s New Economy: The Conquest by a Billion Paupers(New Delhi: Sage Publications); pp xxxiii + 294, Rs 350. Booth, Gregory D (2009): Behind the Curtain: Making Music in Mumbai’s Film Studios(New Delhi: Ox-ford University Press); pp viii + 321, Rs 695.Chaudhary, Shreesh (2009): Foreigners and Foreign Languages in India: A Sociolinguistic History (New Delhi: Foundation Books/Cambridge University Press); pp xiii + 586, Rs 950. Datta, Amlan (2009):Transitional Puzzles: Reflections on Social Economic and Political Issues (New Delhi: Sage Publications); pp xvi + 287, Rs 395. Davies, James B, ed. (2008): Personal Wealth from a Global Perspective(New York, New Delhi: Oxford University Press); pp xxiv + 467, price not indicated.Dhangwal, Dhirendra Datt (2009): Himalayan Deg-radation: Colonial Forestry and Environmental Change in India(New Delhi: Foundation Books/Cambridge University Press); pp xii + 324, Rs 895.Ganguly, Sumit, Larry Diamond and Marc F Plattner, ed. 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Iyer, Lalitha and Shaibal Guharoy (2009): Institutions, Consultants and Transformation: Case Studies from the Development Sector (New Delhi: Response Books); pp xviii + 216, Rs 295.Jamkhedkar, Arvind P (2009): Monumental Legacy – Ajanta (New Delhi: Oxford University Press); pp xiv + 99, Rs 395.Jayawardena, Kumari (2009):Erasure of the Euro-Asian: Recovering Early Radicalism and Feminism in South Asia(New Delhi: Women Unlimited, Associate of Kali for Women); pp iv + 313, Rs 475. Joshi, P N (2008): Glimpses of Changing Banking Scenario (Mehta Publishing House); pp 295, Rs 300.Karelis, Charles (2009): The Persistence of Poverty: Why the Economics of the Well-off Can’t Help the Poor (New Delhi: Oxford University Press); pp xvi + 190, Rs 495. 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(2008): Towards a Knowledge Society: Three Years of the National Knowledge Commission (National Knowl-edge Commission, Government of India); pp iv + 126, price not indicated. – (2009): Politics Triumphs Economics? Political Economy and the Implementation of Competition Law and Economic Regulation in Developing Coun-tries(New Delhi: Academic Foundation); pp 468, Rs 1,195.Milam, William B (2009):Bangladesh and Pakistan: Flirting with Failure in South Asia (London: Hurst & Company and New Delhi: Foundation Books); pp xii + 276, Rs 895.Nayar, Pramod K (2009):Seeing Stars: Spectacle, Society and Celebrity Culture(New Delhi: Sage Publications); pp xiv + 195, Rs 295. Oommen, T K (2008): Reconciliation in Post-Godhra Gujarat: The Role of Civil Society (Delhi: Pearson Education); pp xvi + 288, Rs 625. Pandit, B L and N S Siddharthan (2009): Changing Policy Regimes and Corporate Performance (New Delhi: Oxford University Press); pp ix + 221, Rs 650.Panitch, Leo and Colin Leys (2008): Violence Today: Actually Existing Barbarism(New Delhi: LeftWord Books); pp 277, Rs 350.Parayil, Govindan and Anthony P D’Costa (2009):The New Asian Innovation Dynamics: China and India in Perspective (Palgrave/Macmillan); pp x + 298, £ 60.Pernau, Margrit and Yunus Jaffery (2009): Informa-tion and the Public Sphere: Persian Newsletters from Mughal Delhi(New Delhi: Oxford University Press); pp 480, Rs 1295.Shah, Tushaar (2009): Taming the Anarchy: Ground-water Governance in South Asia, RFF – Resources for the Future, Washington with IWMI, pp x + 310, price not indicated.Singh, Katar (2009): Rural Development Principles, Policies and Management (New Delhi: Sage Publi-cations); pp xx + 348, Rs 395.Singh, Ujjwal Kumar, ed. 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