The kaleidoscope of India

Published : Aug 03, 2002 00:00 IST


Ten Daniel Thorner Memorial Lectures: Land, Labour and Rights edited by Alice Thorner; Tulika, New Delhi, 2001; pages xxi + 279, Rs.525

THERE are scholars who choose to spend their lives examining faded, sometimes moth-eaten, documents, deciphering the writing on ancient monuments and copperplates, and using their acuteness of mind to illuminate forgotten histories and dispel myths about apparently well-known chronicles. There are others who take history as given and get on with the task of analysing contemporary developments, hoping thereby to influence the views and actions of important actors right now. Some scholars move from one area to another but use that movement as an occasion for a busman's holiday, and give up the rigour of their usual discipline while indulgently walking about in exotic territory. And there is yet another group of scholars who take the requirements of historical and contemporary analysis equally seriously, and treat the histories of their chosen field as the doings of living men and women, and look at the events unfolding around them as part of an ongoing historical process. Daniel Thorner belonged firmly to the last group, and it is only appropriate that the lectures that have been instituted to honour his memory should have historical pieces and contemporary analysis in an appealing mixture.

One of the most interesting essays in the volume, "The Royal Titles Bill of 1876", anticipates many of the writings in the genre of 'invention of tradition' that took off from the eponymous volume edited by Eric Hobsbawm and Terence Ranger (1983). I have deliberatelywritten 'anticipates' because it was written by a 22-year-old Daniel in 1937. Alice Thorner has unearthed the essay from among Daniel's papers and has offered this gem to us. She has also written an essay which throws light on the trajectory of this remarkable couple, who have been labouring on the problems of Indian society in its bewildering variety for the past 60 years or more.

Young Daniel Thorner's essay discusses in detail the controversies in England over the decision to proclaim Queen Victoria as the Empress of India simultaneously. It was characteristic of Daniel's approach that he gave the political background of that decision as well as the views of different interest groups regarding the wisdom of the move. The advance of the Tsarist empire in Central Asia and the memory of the 'Mutiny' of 1857-58 both played their part. But Daniel was careful enough to underscore the point that there was a group in England that regarded the imperialist inclinations with great misgiving: "The major argument against the [Royal Titles] Bill was that the title of 'Empress' was despotic, military, and completely foreign and antagonistic to English feelings" (page 11).

With ten papers written by scholars working in their chosen fields and focussing on their own work, it is not possible to do equal justice to all the themes covered in the book. Hence I am going to select some of the themes from this menu. Perhaps the central issues are those that are still connected with the agrarian question, which preoccupied Daniel much of his life, especially after he came to India. It was also the subject of the analysis by Utsa Patnaik, who delivered the first Thorner Memorial lecture and has contributed the introduction. It can be taken as the spindle on which to wind this brief comment. But as the papers by N. Krishnaji, Bina Agarwal, Elizabeth Whitcombe and Pulapre Balakrishnan bring out in their various ways, the conditions of the peasantry, their ability to survive and reproduce, their access to food are all connected with the question of whether peasants, men and women, can control the land they cultivate. Interpenetrating many of the papers are issues regarding the importance (or insignificance) of colonialism and capitalism: these include Jacques Pouchepadass discussing the environment, Atul Setalvad exposing the hollowness of legally inscribed intentions when they cannot be embodied in actual justice, Nandita Haksar arguing the critical importance of international solidarity for upholding human rights, and Tirthankar Roy attempting to relegate the debate on de-industrialisation to the dustbin of historiography.

Developments in post-Independence India, whether they are in the fields of narrowly conceived economic development or in the fields of the more significant areas of human development such as improvements in education, health or the empowerment of women, are the responsibility of the generations that succeeded the British in positions of authority . However, like all actors they were partly hemmed in by the social structures that they were born into, and those structures bore the imprint of the colonial regime in every direction that we fix our gaze on. How the actors tried to change those structures was influenced by their class alignments, their regional locations, and, of course, their ideologies.

Unfortunately, in the most critical area of structures that shape human lives, namely, the right of peasants to land, and the right of women to freedom and equality with men, the generation that ruled India just after Independence followed a policy of accommodation with and appeasement of the most regressive forces of Indian society, forces that had openly colluded with the colonial rulers. In the most densely populated parts of India, the British rulers had controlled the countryside through lineages of landlords. Even in the raiyatwari areas, they had often allowed the growth of intermediaries between the peasant and the state. After Independence, all the schemes of giving land to the tiller were aborted by the ruling Congress party and landlordism was given a fresh lease of life all over northern India outside Punjab. The result was not only the denial of real freedom and substantive democracy to millions of peasants, but the fostering of a capitalism that operates by exploiting bonded labour, charging artisans and peasants usurious interest rates, denying workers the few rights that had been legislated for them after Independence, and fostering excessive dependence on foreign sources for most new technologies.

But the basic contours of these structures had been drawn during the colonial period. Most of the authors who refer to the colonial legacy recognise its adverse effects. Jacques Pouchepadass, for example, warns us against the illusion that ecological degradation started only with colonial rule: after all, predatory rulers had been interfering with nature in a malign fashion millennia before the advent of capitalist colonialism. But he also recognises the fact that colonialism greatly increased the intensity of this interference and that post-Independence India has hardly a better record to show in this respect than colonial rule. But, of course, literacy, life expectancy and per capita income have gone up at a faster rate after Independence, in spite of the debilitation of the enterprise of building a genuinely democratic society and polity.

The only author who seems to question the relevance of colonialism as an overarching perspective for analysing the history of India before 1947 is Tirthankar Roy. He makes a generalisation about de-industrialisation, which he fails to define, that is historically invalidated by history: "...all historically significant examples are examples of technological obsolescence and not of direct intervention [by political authorities]". First of all, this is an absurd way of putting it. Colonial authorities refused to allow the adoption of those policies of state patronage of education, training and research and tariff protection and subsidies that had allowed all major industrial countries of today to challenge successfully Britain, the pioneer industrialiser. This deliberate non-intervention was as culpable as direct intervention and to omit any reference to it is a strange stratagem of debate. Secondly, as the Trevelyan Report of the 1830s made clear, the imposition of internal duties on India-made goods as against the lower duties on imports from Britain seriously discriminated against domestically produced manufactures. Again, the policy of imposing full free trade on India, which was followed from the 1870s against the advice of the managers of the fiscal system in the Viceroy's Council and India Office and the countervailing duties imposed on Indian mill-made cloth in the 1890s, was a clear example of 'direct intervention' by the colonial rulers that thwarted industrial growth.

Roy's justification for neglecting the impact of colonial rule on the Indian people goes even further. He writes: "In this essay, I shall ignore the thesis of a larger economic decay. My ground is that, there is so far no significant quantitative or qualitative data that support the thesis of an overall economic regression at any time in the nineteenth century" (pages 235-6; emphasis added). Recent estimates put famine deaths in India over the years from 1876 to 1879 at 8.2 million and during the period from 1896 to 1902 at 8.4 million . In the intervening years, there were smaller famines in Punjab and other parts of India, which claimed thousands of lives. No quantitative or qualitative data on economic decay? Are these not data that should get into the highbrow economists' felicific calculus? A similarly cavalier attitude is displayed by Roy towards all the quantitative and qualitative data bearing on the issue of de-industrialisation presented by serious scholars working in the field. I do not know whether Daniel Thorner, who fought all his life against colonialism and imperialism, deserves this kind of a tribute. But Roy's paperis not an aberration in the world of mainstream economics: it represents a brandof Panglossian view of the world which chooses to ignore all the problems associated with the spread of the market.

Fortunately, many of the other papers will repay careful study by all students of Indian society and history. They includethe two papers by Utsa Patnaik on the agrarian question in its historical context and under the neo-liberal regime, the paper by Krishnaji on the connection between demographic growth and the condition of the peasantry, the essay by Jacques Pouchepadass on environmental issues, the paper by Bina Agarwal on issues of gender and property rights, the paper by Nandita Haksar on the real issue of human rights as distinguished from the way it is posed in dominant official pronouncements of Western governments, especially the U. S., and the report of Atul Setalvad on the continuing, and perhaps widening, gap between legal intentions and their implementation. In the same league is the interim but carefully crafted report by Elizabeth Whitcombe of her deep investigation of the interaction among starvation, 're-feeding', disease vectors, and swings between drought and humidity under the appalling conditions of the relief camps in causing famine mortality in British India.

I am not sure why Pulapre Balakrishnan is so concerned about the decline of paddy acreage and paddy production in Kerala in the wake of land reforms. If workers found it remunerative to work in the Gulf rather than labour in the paddy fields and if with higher wages, and farmers employing wage-labour could not use as much labour as earlier, is there any reason to believe that any major segment other than a group of farmers depending mainly on hired labour lost out in the process? Moreover, there is also evidence that the owners of land found alternative crops more profitable, so that they may not have been worse off in all cases.

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