An Agrarian History of South Asia
By David Ludden
New Cambridge History of India, IV. 4. Cambridge 1999
This HTML version of the book derives from the manuscript as it was before final copy-editing. For citations, see the published book. FOOTNOTES are used here to provide updates and additions to the text.
Historicity. Seasons. Maps. Landscapes
Peasantry. Dharma. Conquest. Patriarchy.
Frontiers. Sultans. Land. Culture. Administration
Mofussil. Development. Mobilisation. Locality
This book is about history’s attachment to land. It considers the present day in the context of the past two millennia, because a wide historical view is needed to appreciate the ideas that shape contemporary mentalities, and because earthly environments today are being shaped by long term historical forces. As the book goes on, I consider some elements of Eurasian history and I introduce some ideas about geography, technology, patriarchy, ritual, ecology, and other subjects that situate South Asian farmers in their wider world. I also indicate that more research into the historical dynamics of territoriality is needed to improve our knowledge of culture and political economy. But like other volumes in the New Cambridge History of India, the main goal of this book is to draw together research by many scholars concerning a coherent set of historical themes without rehearsing academic debates or piling up citations. The bibliographic essay is a guide to relevant literature that sprawls across the disciplines of history, anthropology, economics, geography, political science, and rural sociology. I apologise for not covering many regions well enough and particularly for slighting Assam, Baluchistan, Chhattisgarh, Kerala, Nepal, Orissa, and Sri Lanka. This failure results partly from the state of research but mostly from my own inability to compile appropriate data in the time and space allotted for this volume. For these reasons, territories in Bangladesh, India, and Pakistan form my central subject matter.
The marginality of agrarian history demands attention. It is not unique to South Asia, but proportionately more books do seem to treat the agrarian past in Europe, the Americas, Russia, China, and Japan. Though culture and political economy are not more detached from the land in South Asia than elsewhere, scholars would seem to think so. This may reflect a more general alienation. As the urban middle class intelligentsia came into being in the modern world economy, they wove the countryside into their epics of nationality, and to this day, agrarian history evokes interest to the extent that country folk represent national identity. Everywhere, agrarian history is submerged in nations and states. We need to keep this in mind because historical knowing is a force in modern transformations of the world and a tool for making the country in the image of the nation. National histories have formed territoriality and incorporated rustic folk into the project of modernity, and the past of its peasantry maps the rise of national power on the land. Modernity’s general alienation from its agrarian environment pervades agrarian studies, and when combined with orientalist stereotypes, it simply pushed peasants more deeply into the margins of history in South Asia than elsewhere. Because villages there seemed totally traditional, lacking any inherent drive to modernity, they were assumed to have no actual history, only timeless permanence. Studies of the rural past thus recounted the incorporation and subordination of villagers by city folk. Urban elites made nations, and they made the history that brought South Asia from ancient times to the present. The village past seemed to be a permanent affliction.
There is much to learn on the margins of history. Most evidence on the agrarian past continues to be unused today, not because it is inaccessible but because it has seemed uninteresting and unimportant for the history of modernity; and we can use this neglect to measure the blinkers of modern minds. If we want to understand modernity as a moment of human history, agrarian history is a good place to look, and South Asia is a good place to work, because here modern machineries of knowing have mangled less of the original data. In Europe, the Americas, and East Asia, scholars have constructed rural history as the legacy and memory of modernity and they have built national identity on a solid agrarian footing. In South Asia, domineering epistemologies of nationality have not paved over so much of the landscape or cemented together the past of nations and of peasants so comprehensively. Villages fit much more firmly and neatly into national histories in France, England, US, China, and Japan than they do in Sri Lanka, Nepal, Pakistan, India, and Bangladesh. The lasting force of regional diversity in South Asia derives from the fact that historically, agrarian territories have marched to different drummers, and even in different directions. Scholars have repeatedly argued that agrarian South Asia evades the discipline of progress. All the histories of all the empires and nations in South Asia could never capture the history of all its peoples.
With this in view, I want to explore agrarian history outside modernity’s construction of the past. Life on the land seems to entangle, confront, and suffuse modernity without being overwhelmed or absorbed by it; and when urban middle class scholars write agrarian history, we stumble repeatedly and awkwardly upon this stubborn, enticing otherness. The misty longevity and persistent localism of agrarian history resist narration and escape the grids of time and space that define national history. Narratives cannot untangle all the rhythms of agrarian change or trace all the lines of movement in apparently stable rustic routines. Agrarian South Asia thus provides a historical vantage point from which to reconsider modernity and nationality. This is another reason to use an expansive chronology of modern South Asian history. In this book, history’s trajectory is not moving toward national independence or national development but rather toward trends that influence agrarian environments today. These represent other histories that are still unfolding inside national states but outside there control, in small-scale agrarian territories which have never been fully defined by modern nationality. These territories have their own histories in which local struggles are tangled up with national and international institutions and also with global networks of power, mobility, and communication.
In studies that cover long periods of time, semantic problems abound. I employ place names from different epochs -- calling ancient Kosala "the region of Lucknow" or "Central Uttar Pradesh," for instance -- to enable the reader to keep track of various terms that attach to places over millennia. This anachronism also encourages a reader to imagine a distant past alive in the present; and indeed, people build a future on a past that never really disappears. Common terms that I use for regions (Awadh, Deccan, Bengal, Punjab, Assam, Uttarakhand, Gujarat, Telangana, and such) refer broadly to old regions rather than to the strictly bounded territories of today. Modern cities and towns are useful landmarks and contemporary political and administrative territories are convenient markers for large regions in all times. Modern district names help to identify small regions, but we need to keep in mind that district names and boundaries change, as do their identities within states and nations, especially after 1947. I use the district names and areas in Joseph E. Schwartzberg, A Historical Atlas of South Asia (second impression, Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 1992. p.79). Many district names continued to be used after 1947 -- though they have been changed with increasing frequency in the last twenty years -- and whenever possible I refer to districts without naming the national state within which they lie. This helps to avoid the impression that the boundaries of contemporary states were inscribed on the agrarian landscape before 1947. The relationship between national territories and agrarian territory is a subject for discussion in Chapters One and Four. When I use states within the Republic of India to discuss times before they were formed, I do so only for the purpose of location; and this does not imply that these political boundaries had some incipient historical reality in the distant past. The historical formation of modern political regions is discussed in chapters Three and Four.
Many terms need to be handled carefully because they resonate with contemporary politics. When I refer to the Tamil, Telugu, or Kannada country, or to "the Marathi-speaking region," I am simply referring to a widely recognised linguistic region, rather than to a linguistic state or cultural territory. The Tamil country, for instance, has always included many non-Tamil speakers, and much of its important literature is composed in languages other than Tamil. Referring to the south-eastern part of the coastal plain as "the Tamil coast" does not mean that this is the only way or the best way to refer to this region; it is merely the most convenient for me here; and it also serves to remind us that agriculture occurs within culture. Similar caveats pertain to all sites with new meanings in cultural politics. I use "Bombay" rather than "Mumbai" because it is more recognisable. I use "Madras" rather than "Chennai," "Uttarakhand" rather than "the Himalayan districts of UP." Terms for agricultural landscapes which pertain across the whole period of my discussion are defined in the last section of Chapter One. These landscapes are not meant to displace other regional terminologies; they simply help to organise regional complexity within an agrarian historical geography.
Personal names do not pose serious problems and their most commonly used forms are employed here. The names of groups, dynasties, and some events (like the wars of 1857) are more troublesome. Group names often appear in personal names and they are almost always necessary for locating people in society. But in long stretches of historical time, groups move in and out of existence and group names change meaning very drastically. For instance, the term "Rajput" came to have more modern meaning from the sixteenth century (Chapter Three), but with suitable caveats, and despite the controversial character of origin stories, I use this terms to indicate group characteristics, if not subjective identity, over a longer period of time. Other group names -- like Vellala, Jat, Kunbi, Maratha, and Marava -- have also changed meanings but they can be used in a similar way. When I refer to the distant past of social groups whose present identities are marked by such terms, and when I speculate as to their social composition or activities before modern times, I often discuss the past in terms that people in these groups will not endorse today. The creators of social identities recount collective experience in terms that become part of human experience, but historians can tell other tales to indicate other aspects of the past. This difference is not just one of perspective, or a feature of insider and outsider subject positions. Because history reshuffles and redefines perspectives, we need to trace the emergence of subject positions historically, and this is most difficult when they are in the making, which many are today. Quickly changing, hotly contested social identities pose the most serious problem, for instance with groups identified as Untouchables, Harijans, and Dalits. I use the term "untouchable" here to refer to the caste condition of this lowest ranked group in the varna scheme, and "harijan" and "dalit" to refer to their representation and identity within modern political movements. Though the term "advasi" is preferrable in our contemporary political context, the terminology of "tribes" and "tribal peoples" is much more common in the literature; it captures a critical feature of the cultural distinctiveness of these groups; and it attaches to the official census and legal category"scheduled tribe." I use "adivasi," therefore, to refer to tribal peoples in their contemporary condition of political activity; and these tribal mobilizations form a theme in agrarian history that is central for understanding long-term change. Using any term to refer to a social group or population has the additional pitfall of implying that everyone in a group is the same, that collective identities are built into individuals, and that terms which have by convention come to identify a group are used by people in the group to represent themselves. Group names are deployed for various political, cultural, and rhetorical ends and terms that are used here have various connotations which cannot be controlled by any tricks of phrasing. Similarly, terms for religious groupings are quite contentious today, and I try to avoid using them exempt as general labels of cultural location.
This book has taken a long time to finish. I thank everyone connected with the New Cambridge History of India for their patience, especially Chris Bayly and Marigold Acland. Along the way, my thinking has been improved by Romila Thapar, Muzaffar Alam, Neeladri Bhattacharya, Sugata Bose, Ayesha Jalal, Sanjay Subrahmanyam, Tosun Aricanli, Rosalind O'Hanlon, Burton Stein, Nick Dirks, Sheldon Pollock, James Boyce, Gyan Prakash, Dina Siddiqi, Ahmed Kamal, Michelle Maskiell, David Rudner, Binayak Sen, Zillur Rahman, Arun Bandopadhyay, M.M.Islam, and David Washbrook. Cynthia Talbot, Ahmed Kamal, Robert Nichols, James R. Hagen, David Gilmartin, M.M.Islam, Minoti Chakravarty-Kaul, R.Vasavi, and K.Sivaramakrishnan gave me unpublished manuscripts that were vitally important. I benefited from seminars at the Yale Centre for Agrarian Studies, the History Department at the University of Calcutta, University of Melbourne, University of New South Wales, Curtin University, University of Chicago, Jawaharlal Nehru University, Columbia University, the Indian Institute of Technology (Madras), The Power and Participation Research Centre (Dhaka), and University of Pennsylvania. I have used research funding from the National Endowment for the Humanities, American Philosophical Society, American Institute for Indian Studies, University of Pennsylvania, and Fulbright-Hays. I thank the professional staff at the National Archives of India, Library of Congress, Tamil Nadu Archives, National Archives of Bangladesh, National Library of India, India Office Library and Records, and Madras Institute for Development Studies. The library staff at the University of Pennsylvania are a constant help, and I especially thank Kanta Bhatia and David Nelson. Thanks to Robert Nichols, Supti Bhattacharya, Amy Iwata, Vivek Bhandari, Sarah Diamond, Jeremie Dufault, and Teresa Watts for their able research assistance.