Book review: Christopher V Hill's River of Sorrow

Imperialism is domination, says Christopher V Hill. And this domination is not just of people, but inevitably extends to "subordinating and transforming nature". In River of Sorrow, Hill makes a compelling case for the study of environmental history as an integral part of the historian's craft, by attempting to explore a largely neglected area in Indian history: the relationship that exists between colonialism as a mode of rampant resource extraction and the concomitant ecological decline

 
Published: Saturday 04 July 2015

imageRiver of Sorrow: Environment and Social Control in Riparian North India
1770-1994 Christopher V Hill Michigan University Press Ann Arbor

Imperialism is domination, says Christopher V Hill. And this domination is not just of people, but inevitably extends to "subordinating and transforming nature". In River of Sorrow, Hill makes a compelling case for the study of environmental history as an integral part of the historian's craft, by attempting to explore a largely neglected area in Indian history: the relationship that exists between colonialism as a mode of rampant resource extraction and the concomitant ecological decline.

The book examines the British attempts to stabilise their hold in Purnia and the flood plain (diara) tracts of the of the Kosi river following the Permanent Settlement of 1793. As one of the earliest areas under colonial supervision, the diaras became a testing ground of sorts for the land and revenue policies of the colonial state. Hill shows how the colonial state was repeatedly confounded by the social and ecological conditions of the area.

The Kosi is an erratic river, infamous for violent floods. It is known to meander and constantly shift course, submerging adjoining areas and rendering, often in one season itself, huge tracts of land unfit for cultivation.

The British attempted to stabilise their hold in Purnia through legislative acts such as the Bengal Alluvion and Diluvion act of 1847 and the Bengal tenancy act of 1885. Subsequent surveys to implement the acts by the Board of Revenue proved to be a failure largely because the surveyors were ignorant of local conditions. Consequently a large number of raiyats or cultivators ended up being denied tenancy rights if they discontinued rent for submerged land and also lost cultivation rights if the land lay fallow. Eventually, the government found it easier to overlook rather than administer this region. Even as late as 1931, the colonial state relied on Mughal revenue records.

Purnia was like a punishment posting for mediocre officers of the colonial state. The district was characterised by lawlessness, unhealthiness, shortage of staff, multiple dialects, complex agrarian hierarchy, as well as flood, famine and epidemics, where the officer was like a prisoner. A constant change over of officers, moreover, heightened the lack of control of the colonial state over the area. Not unexpectedly, there was growth of independent power centers, and relatively autonomous interest groups such as indigo planters, bandits and the big zamindaris.

The Kosi diara region also became a testing ground for colonial policies towards migration. It was based on the strategy of migratory inducements that had been implemented in Ireland during the potato famine of the 1840s. Migration as a tool with monetary inducements was to be used for the colonization of the wilderness by the Bihar peasantry. The main migrants turned out to be the tribal Santhals who had their unique cultural identity. Their agrarian practice revolved around clearing forests for cultivation. But the tribal society was not in sync with commercial agriculture and the cash crop economy which the colonial state tried to promote in Purnia. The Santhals had no tenancy rights over the forests they cleared. Their position became more insecure than what it was before migration. The tribals finally rose against the sarkar (the state), sahukar (moneylender), and zamindar in 1855. In the insurrection 10,000 tribals were killed. Hill concludes that just as the Permanent Settlement neglected Bengal's unique ecology, the migration policy ignored the special position of the Santhal tribals.

River of Sorrow is a carefully crafted account which comprehensively deals with the various twists and turns in colonial policies in the diara regions. It however sheds little light on the pre-colonial social and administrative systems. Hill talks of the British government's dependence on Mughal records, but does not indicate how the Mughals were able to come to terms with the ecology and the social structures in Purnia. While Kosi was the 'river of sorrow' in the Bihar region, there were other equally turbulent and erratic rivers such as the Teesta and the Brahmaputra which caused similar havoc in their respective areas. A broader view of colonial control and the management of these hydraulic environments might have enhanced and deepened the understanding of the colonial experience with the Kosi river. These limitations aside, Christopher Hill has skillfully described the interplay of environmental, economic, social and political factors as they were played out in the Purnia region. His lucid style of writing has turned an otherwise academic exercise into a highly readable and accessible account. It will also please the generalist.

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