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Colonial straitjacket

Book>> Becoming India Western Himalayas under British Rule by Aniket Alam Foundation Books, Delhi 2008

By Suhit Sen
Published: Friday 15 August 2008


Aniket Alam's foray into the evolution of social, political and productive relations in the western Himalaya emphasizes an important, if not always profound, insight. That the process of becoming India as a single social, political, economic, administrative and, to a lesser extent, cultural unit later of course to be sundered into three parts--under the rubric of the nation-state was a process concretely achieved through colonial rule. It was not an immanent unity that had existed, as some historians used to argue, from 'time immemorial'.

It's always useful to keep that insight in mind while exploring the history of 'India' though.For Alam, it is in many senses more crucial than it is for historians of 'mainstream' India, because the geographical and historical location of the region he has studied--the western Himalaya--made it in more ways than one a border region. Thus, as Alam argues, while most Indians, whether from the scholarly community or the laity, take it for granted that present-day Himachal Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh are naturally part of what is the Indian nation-state today if for no other reason than a shared colonial past, this region had its peculiar social and political historical trajectory, which required its constitution as part of the Indian nation-state in a very different way.

As Alam tells the story, the principalities that constituted the political geographical map of the western Himalaya, they were scarcely grander than that, were different from the empires and kingdoms of plains India in that their monarchical structures were far more incipient. The primary reason for the lack of a high imperium in the hills, except for a brief period of Gurkha conquest, was that the area had neither a thriving agricultural economy nor was it densely networked with the markets and trade routes of the subcontinent in pre-colonial times and thus generated a very limited economic surplus beyond its immediate reproductive necessities. This, and the fact that the main body of agriculturalists and pastoralists were tribes organised territorially into tightly knit, largely egalitarian communities organized around lineages and clans, meant that royal authority had to share formal power with bodies that represented the clans and lineages, usually at the village level. It also had to share its authority with a parallel hierarchy of sacerdotal power, which, in fact, provided the ideological and moral underpinnings of kingship. Further, in the context of an autarchic non-monetized economy, the ownership of productive resources--labour, land, water, forests, animals, pre-eminently--was organized around the extended family and/or the lineage and the clan.

The advent of the British set in motion two critical changes. The colonial officials who went in to the western Himalaya to make the first political and revenue settlements had very little idea of the peculiarities of the area and, extrapolating from their experience of the more centralized polities of the plains (themselves to a lesser extent misread because of extrapolation from over three centuries of western European historical processes that created 'secular' centralised monarchies organised around territorial-national units), gave the monarchies of the western Himalaya unitary power.

This in the long term expunged the political and juridical powers of clan, lineage and community, and undermined the material/substantive and ideological/symbolic role of the sacerdotal hierarchy. At the same time, by recognizing untrammelled individual ownership of land and appropriating forest rights either for itself or for the royal houses the colonial authorities swept away the complex bundle of rights to the land and forests that had existed before its advent. Along with the penetration of the market and a cash economy, this created a new stratified society with increased individualization and avenues of enrichment.

Down to Earth
Colonial rule mainstreamed the Himalaya

This story would have been better told, however, if Alam had paused for a while to take a closer look. Having noted that under the colonial revenue settlement the individual cultivator was made the unit of assessment and thus endowed with a new juridical right to the land, Alam does not take the analysis further to look how this must have fundamentally redirected social dynamics and transformed west Himalayan peasant society. This tantalizing oversight is only partially rectified much later when in the context of market integration he briefly discusses the stratification of peasant society. There are other crucial areas in which Alam signposts important avenues of inquiry only to back off--this is especially true of his treatment of, say, the role of the ecological setting and the post-independence period as a whole. But overall this is an important and interesting intervention, one well worth visiting.

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