Home truhs, colonial lies

A noted Gandhian historian, DHARAMPAL has enquired into variousfacets of M-British Indian society. He has authored several books, including Indian Science and Technology in the 18th century and The Beautiful Tree. In a conversation with MAX MARTIN in Delhi recently, he spoke on India's achievements in agriculture and science, the efficacy of indigenous systems of Local governance and the deleterious effects of British rule

Published: Monday 30 June 1997

on agricultural productivity in India before the imposition of the British system:
Sketches and descriptions of tools give us an idea of productivity in agriculture and seed varieties in previous centuries. According to data collected by the British, agriculture productivity was quite high around AD 1800. In the journal Edinburgh Review, the average produce per acre in India is quoted as three times higher than Britain's.

Data from south India on paddy production in the 10th century - the Chola period - and data from the 17th century about the Chengalpattu area indicate that just 10 per cent of the cultivated land produced as much as five to six tonnes per hectare. The authenticity of the data, obtained from palm leaf inscriptions, is accepted by historians. It is not difficult to account for the high yield. We had better hybrids, better seeds, and a better climate than most countries in Europe.

On our knowledge of mathematics, and science and technology in the 18th century:
Eighteenth century British records suggest that Indians knew algebra. Their knowledge must have developed over a considerable period of time, possibly centuries.

Steel and iron were being used in some of our buildings. In Kashmir and in south India, steel was used in temple construction. Most of this was indigenously produced. We had a good knowledge of metallurgy. Data suggests that production of iron and steel was quite high. My estimate is that our production potential was about 200,000 tonnes a year. But we probably produced only about 20,000- 50,000 tonnes per year. There were about 10,000 furnaces for metal-working across the country, including ones that could be trans- ported by bullock cart to areas where iron ore was available. These could only have been made by professionals such as the Agarias.

On living standards before British interference in the functioning of the social economy:
Around 1805-06, Lord Monroe collected data on social classes in Bellary-Cuddapah (Andhra Pradesh@. On the basis of this data, he );-devised the incrme categories - upper, middle and lower. However, I do not think that there was any such thing as mass poverty.

I The British reduced the wages of servants and workers in urban areas. In the 18th century, wages were regulated throughout Bengal. Cases of non-compliance with the regulation were dealt with strictly. Both workers and 4mployers could be punished: the workers for claiming mopre, aVd the employers for paying more'wages than permissible. These regulations continA till about 1774.

The British went so far as to control social institutions. They took over the management of temples. Although these were not closed down, their expenditure was reduced by as much as Rs 3,000 in some cases. Similar restrictions were imposed in all areas where Indian society wat developed, including medical institutions. On tradition and the functioning of the caste system in the political economy:
There was equality among people in all communities. Although jati vyavastha or the caste system was part of the social fabric, castes were equal in political terms. There was little competition on an individual level. Members of a community were equal. Ritually, some might have been superior, but they were poli tically equal. Even if there were half a dozen communities in a locality, each community would function in its own capacity.

On decision-making relating to matters of social concern:
Every caste had a say in matters of social concern. P Buchanan travelled from Madras to Kanara, observing the way Indian society functioned. The journey took over two years, and the findings were published in a number of well-illustrated volumes. Buchanan points out that even the pariah or the casteless had a say in matters that affected them as a group. Historians say that Indians in the 17th century were very much given to seeking public opinion. Other travel accounts of earlier periods also reveal that Indians discussed social matters publicly.

On the status of untouchables, backward castes, and tribals in the south:
In Tirunelveli district of Tamil Nadu in the 1820s, boys in schools were categorised as brahman, kshatriya, vaishya, shudra and 'other castes'. Still, more than 30 per cent of the boys in the schools run by the local community were included in the'other castes'. This means dalits had access to schools. However, this was not the case in every district or state - in Andhra Pradesh the figures were lower. On gram swarai and the undermining of institutions of local government as a result of British rule: Schools were run by local communities. Some 25-30 per cent of the land under agriculture was set aside to fund infrastructural development and institutions in localities. This would include the setting up of irrigation tanks, schools and temples, and their maintenance. It would also include policing. The accounts of a village called Uttar Meru in Chengalpattu district are given in detail in some 10th century inscriptions. The inscriptions also give us an account of the functioning of the village assembly. It was probably a brahmanical assembly. Other assemblies might not have been so formally organised.

On the political myth of the British contribution to national infrastructure:

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