ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

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On the Degradation of Mobility in Early Colonial India

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.

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Updated On : 13th Feb, 2018
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