The last two decades have witnessed ‘the return of the peasant’ to South Asian history. New empirical research and innovative methodologies have enabled this historical reconstruction of agrarian economies, politics and society in colonial and post- colonial India. In this key volume in the New Cambridge History of India, Professor Sugata Bose presents a critical synthesis of existing scholarship and offers a new interpretation of agrarian continuity and change from 1770 to the present.

The author examines the related themes of demography, com- modity production, agrarian social structure, and changing forms of peasant resistance. Agrarian relations are addressed along lines of gender and generation as well as class and community. By focussing on ‘peasant labour’, Bose integrates the histories of land and capital. He also explores the relationship between capitalist development of the economy under colonial rule and elements of both change and continuity at the point of primary production and appropriation.

Although the author draws most of his empirical material from rural Bengal, he makes important comparisons with regional agrarian histories across India and beyond. Peasant Labour and Colonial Capital: Rural Bengal Since 1770 is essential reading for the understanding of rural India’s colonial and post-colonial experience. It is also of relevance to all those interested in agrarian societies in the developing world and debates about the origins and character of agrarian capitalism.

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General editor GORDON JOHNSON

Director, Centre of South Asian Studies, University of Cambridge, and Fellow of Selwyn College

Associate editors C. A. BayLy

and Joun F, RicHarps Professor of History, Duke University

Although the original Cambridge History of India, published between 1922 and 1937, did much to formulate a chronology for Indian history and describe the administrative structures of government in India, it has inevitably been overtaken by the mass of new research published over the last fifty years.

Designed to take full account of recent scholarship and changing concep- tions of South Asia’s historical development, The New Cambridge History of India will be published as a series of short, self-contained volumes, each dealing with a separate theme and written by a single person, within an overall four-part structure. As before, each will conclude with a substantial bibliographical essay designed to lead non-specialists further into the literature.

The four parts are as follows:

I The Mughals and their Contemporaries. II Indian States and the Transition to Colonialism. III The Indian Empire and the Beginnings of Modern Society. IV The Evolution of Contemporary India.

A list of individual titles already published and in preparation will be found at the end of the volume.

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Peasant Labour and Colonial Capital: Rural Bengal Since 1770

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Peasant Labour and Colonial Capital: Rural Bengal Since 1770





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CAMBRIDGE UNIVERSITY PRESS Cambridge, New York, Melbourne, Madrid, Cape Town, Singapore, S40 Paulo

Cambridge University Press The Edinburgh Building, Cambridge CB2 2RU, UK

Published in the United States of America by Cambridge University Press, New York Information on this title: 1266949

© Cambridge University Press 1993

This publication is in copyright. Subject to statutory exception and to the provisions of relevant collective licensing agreements, no reproduction of any part may take place without the written permission of Cambridge University Press.

First published 1993 Reprinted 2003 This digitally printed first paperback version 2006

A catalogue record for this publication is available from the British Library

Library of Congress Cataloguing in Publication data Bose, Sugata. Peasant labour and colonial capital: rural Bengal since 1770 / Sugata Bose. p. cm, —(The New Cambridge History of India: ITT.2) Includes bibliographical references and index. ISBN 0 521 26694 7 1. Peasantry India Bengal History. 2. Bengal (India) Colonization History. 3. Bengal (India) Industries History. 4. Bengal (India) Rural conditions. I. Title. II. Series. DS436.N47_ 1987 [HD1537.14] 945 S—de20 [305.5°633'095414] 92-12666 CIP

ISBN-13 978-0-521-26694-9 hardback ISBN-10 0-521-26694-7 hardback

ISBN-13 978-0-521-03322-0 paperback ISBN-10 0-521-03322-5 paperback

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sa ph WwW


List of illustrations

List of tables

General editor’s preface Preface


Ecology and demography Commercialization and colonialism Property and production Appropriation and exploitation Resistance and consciousness


Bibliographical essay Index


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page x x1 xl


140 181

186 197


MAPS . The rivers of Bengal page 10 . Density of population, 1941 30 3. Regional spread of Famine-year mortality, 1943 31 . Bengal districts in the early twentieth century 85 FIGURES . Bengal: value of major exports 54 xX

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oN AM Sw


. Inter-censal annual rates of growth of rural population . Per capita agricultural output, 1949-80

. Dhan (paddy) prices per maund in Bengal districts

. Teacultivation in the Jalpaiguri Duars

. The balance between raiyati and nij in the indigo sector . The zamindars’ cut, 1830

. Land sales and mortgages in Bengal, 1929-1943

. Land alienation in Bengal, 1940-1 to 1944-5


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page 29 33 §2 55 75 II7 132


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The New Cambridge History of India covers the period from the beginning of the sixteenth century. In some respects it marks a radical change in the style of Cambridge Histories, but in others the editors feel that they are working firmly within an established academic tradition.

During the summer of 1896, F.W. Maitland and Lord Acton between them evolved the idea of a comprehensive modern history. By the end of the year the Syndics of the University Press had committed themselves to the Cambridge Modern History, and Lord Acton had been put in charge of it. It was hoped that publication would begin in 1899 and be completed by 1904, but the first volume in fact came out in 1902 and the last in 1910, with additional volumes of tables and maps in 1911 and 1912.

The History was a great success, and it was followed by a whole series of distinctive Cambridge Histories covering English Litera- ture, the Ancient World, India, British Foreign Policy, Economic History, Medieval History, the British Empire, Africa, China and Latin America; and even now other new series are being prepared. Indeed, the various Histories have given the Press notable strength in the publication of general reference books in the arts and social sciences.

What has made the Cambridge Histories so distinctive is that they have never been simply dictionaries or encyclopedias. The Histories have, in H.A.L. Fisher’s words, always been ‘written by an army of specialists concentrating the latest results of special study’. Yet as Acton agreed with the Syndics in 1896, they have not been mere compilations of existing material but original works. Undoubtedly many of the Histories are uneven in quality, some have become out of date very rapidly, but their virtue has been that they have consistently done more than simply record an existing state of knowledge: they have tended to focus interest on research and they have provided a massive stimulus to further work. This has made their publication doubly worthwhile and has distinguished them intellectually from


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other sorts of reference book. The editors of the New Cambridge History of India have acknowledged this in their work.

The original Cambridge History of India was published between 1922 and 1937. It was planned in six volumes, but of these, volume 2 dealing with the period between the first century ap and the Muslim invasion of India never appeared. Some of the material is still of value, but in many respects it is now out of date. The last fifty years have seen a great deal of new research on India, and a striking feature of recent work has been to cast doubt on the validity of the quite arbitrary chronological and categorical way in which Indian history has been conventionally divided.

The editors decided that it would not be academically desirable to prepare a new History of India using the traditional format. The selective nature of research on Indian history over the past half-century would doom such a project from the start and the whole of Indian history would not be covered in an even or comprehensive manner. They concluded that the best scheme would be to have a History divided into four overlapping chronological volumes, each containing about eight short books on individual themes or subjects. Although in extent the work will therefore be equivalent to a dozen massive tomes of the traditional sort, in form the New Cambridge History of India will appear as a shelf full of separate but complementary parts. Accordingly, the main divisions are between I. The Mughals and their Contemporaries, Il. Indian States and the Transition to Colonialism, Ill. The Indian Empire and the Beginnings of Modern Society, and IV. The Evolution of Contemporary India.

Just as the books within these volumes are complementary so too do they intersect with each other, both thematically and chronologically. As the books appear they are intended to give a view of the subject as it now stands and to act as a stimulus to further research. We do not expect the New Cambridge History of India to be the last word on the subject but an essential voice in the continuing debate about it.


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In writing this work of synthesis and interpretation I have felt indebted to several recent generations of at least two unorganized academic collectivities agrarian historians of India spread out across at least three continents and, more parochially, Bengali scholars and the intellectual tradition they have sustained despite the tribulations of the twentieth century. Most of these debts are explicitly or implicitly acknowledged in the text of this volume. But I would like to mention especially the late Eric Stokes, who taught me in Cambridge. Among the many people from whom I have learnt much over the years from personal exchanges the works of the following have had a direct bearing on the arguments of this book: Shapan Adnan, Partha Chatterjee, Binay Bhusan Chaudhuri, Rajat Kanta Ray, the late Ratnalekha Ray, Tapan Raychaudhuri and Amartya Sen.

I have greatly benefited from comments made on the drafts of this book by C.A. Bayly, David Ludden and David Washbrook. Chris Bayly has helped not only with his criticism and encouragement but also by setting the standards for this series as well as the field in general. I would also like to thank Chris and Susan Bayly for their hospitality during my visits to Cambridge. I am sure that ideas generated during my many conversations with David Washbrook in Cambridge, Massachusetts, have found their way into this book. I am grateful to Gordon Johnson and John Richards for their interest in this work.

Grants from the Social Science Research Council of the USA and the Faculty Research Awards Committee of Tufts University have helped fund research for this project. I have drawn on the resources and goodwill of many libraries and archives in South Asia, the UK and the USA, especially the India Office Records and Library in London. I wish to thank Gill Thomas of Cambridge University Press for oversee- ing the publication process and Janet Hall for her meticulous copy- editing.

Among my many helpful friends and colleagues at Tufts University Leila Fawaz and Sol Gittleman must be specially mentioned for their enthusiastic support. My sister Sarmila and brother Sumantra have


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provided intellectual stimulation and warm affection. Ayesha Jalal has contributed much to this volume while at the same time reminding me that there is more to life than agrarian history. My parents Sisir Kumar Bose and Krishna Bose have provided unstinted intellectual and emotional support. It is to them I dedicate this book.


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In 1978 Eric Stokes, the doyen of agrarian historians at Cambridge, welcomed ‘the return of the peasant to South Asian history’. He berated historians and political scientists for their ‘laggardliness’ in recognizing that ‘the balance of destiny in South Asia rests in peasant hands’ but expressed satisfaction that ‘among the students of the colonial revolution in South Asia the city slickers [we]re at last quitting town’.! The difficulties in achieving a meaningful intellectual engagement with peasant history stemmed partly from the mispercep- tion of a discontinuity between state structures and politics on the one hand and agrarian economies and societies on the other that had been one of the most lasting legacies of nineteenth-century theorists and comparative sociologists. Besides, there was the vexing problem of sources associated with studying social groups who left few written records of their own and were mere objects in the enquiries of external observers, especially colonial officialdom. During the 1970s and 1980s new empirical research and innovative methodologies enabled not only an historical reconstruction of agrarian economy, society and politics and their interrelations in various regions of colonial India but, through a critical evaluation if not deconstruction of colonial texts, restored to the peasantry their subjecthood in the making of history.

A study of the historical experience of the labouring classes in the Indian countryside during colonial rule is of vital importance and general relevance to historians in two ways. First, the nature and extent of the ‘colonial revolution’ in South Asia cannot be grasped without addressing the question of agrarian transformation. Second, the evi- dence from colonial India could form the basis of a scholarly interven- tion in broader debates providing insights into contemporary agrarian societies in the developing world and leading to a more balanced understanding of the origins and character of agrarian capitalism than is afforded by the literature with its deeply ingrained European emphasis.

The notion of dramatic and far-reaching change in South Asian

1 Eric Stokes, The Peasant and the Raj (Cambridge, 1978), pp. 265-6.

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society under the impact of British colonialism has come under scrutiny and scepticism in a large body of historical writing over the past few decades. The issue of change versus continuity can be posed at three connected analytical levels: (1) the structure and character of the colonial state, (2) the intermediate layer consisting of merchants, bankers and gentry between the state and the largely agrarian society and (3) the social organization and reproduction of labour in the very substantial agrarian sector and the smaller but significant artisanal and industrial sectors. The ‘threads of continuity’ between pre-colonial and colonial India have been drawn together most skilfully in the work of C. A. Bayly with its main focus on the world of the intermediate social groups.* The argument about continuity of agrarian social formations advanced by a number of scholars in the 1970s has rested almost exclusively on descriptive criteria, such as the extent of landlessness and levels of differentiation at different moments in time. This volume deploys analytical categories in an attempt to ferret out the elements of qualitative change in an agrarian scenario where many social structural features appeared to remain unaltered. It does so by integrating the histories of land and capital in order to be better able to probe the dialectic between capitalist ‘development’ of the wider economy under colonialism and agrarian continuity or change at the point of pro- duction and primary appropriation. The coexistence of rapid commer- cialization of agriculture and resilient non-capitalist forms of agrarian relations is analysed within the context of the logic of colonial capitalism. Since the peasant family represented an important, perhaps the most important, component of the labour process underlying colonial capitalist development, peasant history is treated as an inextricable and crucial strand of labour history. The phrase ‘peasant labour’ in the title of this volume is intended to capture this thrust of the argument. The exploration of peasant labour’s interaction with the forces of colonial capital and its legacy in the post-independence period forms a critical core of this book and explains the second half of the title.

There has been of late a marked shift of interest and emphasis among historians and economists which has led them to stress the social rather

2 C.A. Bayly, Indian Society and the Making of the British Empire (The New Cambridge History of India) (Cambridge, 1988) p. 5. See also his classic study Rulers, Townsmen and Bazaars: North Indian Society in the Age of British Expansion (Cambridge, 1983). Bayly’s

New Cambridge History volume notes important changes at the level of the state, such as the creation of a large European-style standing army.


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than the narrowly technological foundations of economic develop- ment. The historical debate in this regard is fully engaged with reference to pre-industrial Europe but there have been significant individual contributions by scholars of Asia, Africa and Latin America. The relative strength of the impact of demographic forces on agrarian economy and society is a question that for long has divided historians. Even those who treated pre-industrial peasant societies within the framework of demographic models were far from agreed on the issue of the peasant response to the market and the efficacy of the forces of commercialization in triggering social structural change and clearing the way for capitalist economic development. Some historians allowed a dynamic role to market forces while others tended to stress the precedence of the demographic factor in any causal sequence. A political Marxian critique of the late 1970s called into question all the variants of the demographically determined model and asserted the centrality of pre-existing class structures in shaping the nature of social and economic change. Another questioning view preferred to see the mode of production or the economic logic inherent in a feudal system rather than the political superstructure at the centre of analysis. The intellectual ferment achieved some important breakthroughs but left other aspects of agrarian change unaddressed or unresolved.

To the extent that the conflicting interpretations stem from differ- ences of emphasis and the choice of alternative frameworks for the analysis of related themes, the elucidation of the precise connections between these themes is a matter for empirical investigation and analysis. Colonial India, especially the Bengal region which was the earliest to come under British rule, affords some of the most fascinating evidence for this kind of investigation and analysis. But beyond the elucidation of connections between themes, the deployment of the historical method of investigative research in a time and place char- acterized by the articulation of non-capitalist social formations to wider economic systems based on capitalism can lay the groundwork for alternative global models of a transition whose nuances have been inadequately grasped by models resting for the most part on the European historical experience.

The history of rural Bengal from the early phase of colonial rule and

3 See, for instance, T. H. Aston and C. H. E. Philpin, The Brenner Debate: Agrarian Class Structure and Economic Development in Pre-Industrial Europe (Cambridge, 1985), especially the contributions by M. M. Postan and John Hatcher, Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie, Robert Brenner and Guy Bois.

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the great famine of 1770 to the post-colonial conditions of widespread endemic malnutrition and hunger poses all the conceptual problems of an agrarian society resting on a subsistence base which over time increasingly became linked to wider economic systems including a capitalist world market. Under such circumstances how far was agrarian economic development constrained by the homeostasis of demographically determined ecosystems? To what extent did the links with wider economic systems possess transformative power? Or did the locus of historical initiative lie with the logic inherent in pre- existing social formations, specific cultures and the political balance of class forces? These are some of the questions addressed in this volume as it seeks to analyse and interpret the related themes of demography, commodity production and agrarian social structure unfolding over the long term in a colonial setting.

The choice of the Bengal region from which to draw substantive empirical information and 1770 as the starting-point of this study requires some explanation. It was partly a case of ‘consenting to geographical sacrifices in order to maintain chronological ambitions’.* Colonial Bengal’s agrarian history held out exceptional promise for the investigation of the key questions and themes over the long term. Throughout this volume, however, frequent comparisons are made with regional agrarian histories of other parts of South Asia. Existing research on rural Bengal and India in the modern period is brought under the light of critical synthesis and primary sources are used to fill in significant gaps in the secondary literature. The volume provides a thematic rather than an exhaustive treatment of complex economic, social and political phenomena and ultimately depends for a sense of unity and coherence on a set of arguments about historical change advanced by one scholar.

The date 1770 was selected as the point at which to begin the story after a deliberate rejection of 1793, the date of the Permanent Settle- ment of the land revenue with the zamindars of Bengal. The historio- graphy of agrarian India has been hampered by a sterile engagement with formal, colonial land-revenue systems and a lopsided emphasis on landlords and rural elites. One of the purposes of this volume is to restore the perspective by shifting the spotlight away from the zamin- dari bhadralok and large landholding jotedars on to the vast majority of

+ Labrousse offered this apology in a different context. See Peter Burke (ed.), Economy and Society in Early Modern Europe: Essays from Annales (New York, 1972), p. 6.


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smallholding, land-poor and landless labour. Demographic move- ments since the great depopulation of 1770 had a bearing on changes in the social organization of production and were influenced in turn by the systems of production and appropriation. The choice of 1770 is not meant to assign the demographic factor a priori causal primacy but to serve as ‘a partial control, or cross-check, for other kinds of long-term movements’.> Chapter 1 tracks the demographic cycles and the sig- nificant shifts that occurred in the domain of ecology over the two centuries of colonial rule and its aftermath.

From about 1820 rural India became subject to the influence of the rhythms and fluctuations of a wider capitalist economy. Chapter 2 looks at the process of agricultural commercialization and commodity production for a capitalist world market as simultaneously an economic and political phenomenon. It examines the extent to which the colonial state set rules and restrictions in the marketplace and how the state-market nexus affected the subsistence needs of peasant labour. Particular attention is paid to the ways in which the state’s financial policies moulded the social impact of the vicissitudes of the world market. The case studies of the indigo economy of the nine- teenth century and the jute economy of the twentieth century are designed to lend substantiation to the argument about styles and phases of commercialization and the experience of the primary pro- ducers who engaged in the process.

The broader demographic and market trends interacted with an agrarian social structure characterized by a colonial rule of property and different types of relations of production. Chapter 3 explores the property—production dialectic in agrarian society and advances a typology of the main forms of material production and social repro- duction of labour. It documents the strands of continuity in the social organization of production and establishes what it was that changed under colonial rule in apparently enduring social structures. Since the labour process in agriculture was predominantly familial in character, the issue of change is addressed along lines of gender and generation as well as those of class and community.

While the social organization of production exhibited important features of continuity, the relations of surplus-appropriation went

5 The phrase is borrowed from Le Roy Ladurie, but not his broader formulation and methodology. Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie, The Peasants of Languedoc (Urbana, Illinois,

1973), Pp. 6.

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through a clearer series of mutations over time. Chapter 4 explains the major transitions and offers a periodicization by predominant modes of appropriation. The successive pre-eminence of the rent, credit, lease, land and capital markets defined the principal axis of exploitation at different historical moments and had a close bearing on the history of agrarian resistance.

The structures and trends of demography, commercialization, pro- duction and appropriation were fashioned by the contest between the forces of domination and resistance. Chapter 5 explicitly addresses the topic of changing forms of agrarian resistance and probes the inner recesses of the mentalities of peasant labour. Understanding new states of peasant consciousness is by far the most delicate task faced by agrarian historians. It is attempted in this volume by unravelling the interplay of thoughts and ideological struggles with the relations of production and distribution.

This interpretative work seeks to avoid two potential false dichoto- mies between, first, the status of the ‘economic’ and the ‘political’ and, second, ‘material conditions’ and ‘culture/consciousness’ in agrarian and labour history. Social relations of production and exploitation explored in this book were simultaneously economic and political realities. Thinly veiled charges of ‘economism’ and ‘politicism’ not- withstanding, the more subtle and nuanced studies of agrarian economy and politics contain sufficient insights into the intertwining of economic and political forces.®

Agrarian and labour historians with a staunch materialist orientation may have overstated the case for economic determination. But in deriding the cruder forms of matter-over-mind reductionism, the new historiographical emphasis on culture is in danger of divorcing mind from matter, and consciousness from the dialectic of material pro- duction and social reproduction.” In order to avoid the pitfalls of economic determinism, it is hardly necessary to abandon the domain of material life and the economy. To do so would mean leaving the entire

6 On differences of emphasis on the economic and the political see, for instance, Sugata Bose, Agrarian Bengal: Economy, Social Structure and Politics, 1919-1947 (Cambridge, 1986) and Partha Chatterjee, Bengal 1920-1947: the Land Question (Calcutta, 1984). Also Bose’s review of Chatterjee in Indian Economic and Social History Review, 24, 3 (1987), 336-9, and Chatterjee’s review of Bose in Journal of Asian Studies (Autumn, 1988), pp. 670-2.

7 For sophisticated versions of the argument against ‘economism’ in labour and agrarian history see, for instance, Dipesh Chakrabarty, Rethinking Working-Class History: Bengal 1890-1940 (Princeton, 1989) and Gyan Prakash, Bonded Histories: Genealogies of Labour Servitude in Colonial India (Cambridge, 1990).


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field of agrarian and labour history uncontested to those who see peasant labour as an objectified entity moulded by ‘impersonal’ demographic and commercial processes. This volume attempts to show how structures and processes of demography, commercialization, production and appropriation represented a combination of economic, political and cultural phenomena and were shaped by the tussle between domination and resistance. If, as the votaries of the import- ance of culture rightly claim, economic and political factors do not operate outside culture, they must also be viewed as key constitutive elements in the formation of culture and not merely as matters of detail in an historically given cultural context.

Since economic, political and cultural forces interact in complex ways in agrarian history, it is best not to be too overconfident while expounding on the subject of peasant consciousness. The present author sees the Indian peasant, despite having to contend with an array of exploiters, as a free spirit, who demands understanding but is best allowed to evade the bondage of the academic interpreter.

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Agrarian history at its most elementary level is the story of the interaction between land and people. The changing relationship between varying numbers of human beings and a fixed quantity of land has been from time immemorial a simple but crucial dynamic in agrarian developments. Historical reality has rarely been quite so simple as to be captured within a single relationship of a variable and a constant. Too many things other than population change, and land, despite its appearance, does not lack movement. Besides, the power of simplicity often misleads; it is all too easy to overemphasize the demographic factor in agrarian history.

Demography nevertheless is important, not necessarily as a causal determinant of the nature and course of agrarian developments but as a defining principle of parameters within which rural production occurs. Putting demography in its place is a daunting task. To the extent that historians have made contributions to grand theory in the twentieth century, studies of the long-term in pre-industrial history in which demographic cycles loom large have been, more often than not, the empirical vehicle for theoretical interjection.! The Annales school of historians in particular has lent this genre both sophistication and the status of orthodoxy. What is more, the part of the world that is the subject of this book is precisely one of those many regions in the ‘developing’ world where the ‘problem’ of population is especially acute. In 1770, the starting-point of this study, the agrarian scene in Bengal was marked by the scarcity of people and vast stretches of uncultivated fertile land. Two centuries later, land in the two Bengals has some of the highest densities of population and some of the lowest yields of production in the world. In 1981, 625 people crowded into a single square kilometre of space in Bangladesh, just eleven fewer, 614, in West Bengal.?

1 Quentin Skinner (ed.), The Return of Grand Theory to the Human Sciences (Cambridge, 1985), pp. 19, 177-98.

2 Government of Bangladesh, The Preliminary Report on Bangladesh Population Census 1981 (Dacca, 1981), p. 1; Government of India, Census of India 1981, Series 23, West Bengal: Provisional Population Totals (Calcutta, 1981), p.v.


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Popular views of population increases and densities tend to diverge remarkably from scholarly perspectives. In the popular perception, unbridled demographic growth creates an awesome burden on the land which contributes in no uncertain way to widespread mal- nutrition and hunger, not only in the two Bengals but in South Asia generally. An influential scholarly school, on the other hand, regards population pressure as a potential stimulus which, other things being equal, should induce innovation in agricultural techniques and in so doing enhance productivity. The specialist literature, however, is far from being unanimous on the question of population as a positive or negative trigger. It is even more divided on the direction of causality between population and production in agriculture and occasionally quite arbitrary in defining surfeits and deficits. An historical perspec- tive over the /ongue durée can help untangle the intricate twists of the causal chain, while the context of the social relations of production and appropriation can provide a reliable gauge to measure surpluses and shortfalls of labour in relation to land.

Population, whether seen as independent or dependent on other factors, is a variable. Land, that classic ‘non-producible’ means of production, is after all supposed to be the constant in this abiding relationship. So it is best to begin by surveying the lie of the land.


In any discussion of the geographic structures of the Bengal country- side, rivers come first. This immediately qualifies the common notion of historians of the longue durée that geographic structures are constants. Nothing is really permanent in the deltas of great rivers; there is little that endures. In rural Bengal a land of torrential monsoon rains, warm and humid air, catastrophic cyclones and tumultuous earthquakes the mighty distributaries of the Ganga carried away vast tracts in their sweep until they themselves were obliterated and lost their identities in newer, stronger currents. It was probably the transparent transience of their physical environment that inculcated in the peasants of Bengal a spirit of resignation and renunciation. The popular song ‘The day is done and the evening

3 Fernand Braudel, Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II, Vol. I (London, 1972), ch. 1; Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie, The Peasants of Languedoc (Urbana, Illinois, 1974), p. 7.

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Me sce andpur\

dpe Ae, sa \

= <a we AX


0 100km Ce 0 50 miles

1. The rivers of Bengal


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come, pray my God, take me over the ferry’ poignantly expresses the wistful longing to cross the river and go home.*

The turbulent hydrography of its great rivers has had a close bearing on the agrarian economy of Bengal. Over the centuries the main river has repeatedly changed course, altering the balance of the river system as a whole. The periodic breakouts were brought on by a process of gradual levelling of the land and silting up of the old river beds.> The Bhagirathi flowing through the heart of western Bengal or Rarh had risen to pre-eminence during the Mughal era upon the dwindling fortunes of the Bhairab and Saraswati. Its decline paralleled that of the Mughals and its fate was finally sealed once its distributary, the Damodar, awkwardly lurched southward in 1770. Since the early seventeenth century the Ganga had pressed for outlets further east and found them in the Gorai in Faridpur and, more importantly, the Padma which wove a wide swathe through much of east Bengal including Dhaka, Faridpur and Bakarganj. The general eastward swing of the river system was in part accentuated by catalytic events in the later eighteenth century as environmental upheavals matched political ones. The earthquake of 1762 and the floods of 1769-70 and 1786-8 spawned the creation of half a dozen new rivers or at least presented old rivers in completely new incarnations the Tista, Jamuna, Jelanghi, Mathab- hanga, Kirtinasa and Naya Bhangini.® The glory of the Jelanghi and Mathabhanga, which gave the eastern parts of Murshidabad, Nadia and Jessore a new lease of life in the nineteenth century, proved to be shortlived, a consequence of the bridging role played by the Jamuna between the Ganga and the Brahmaputra. Following the great inun- dation of 1787 the Tista, formerly a tributary of the Ganga, linked up with the Brahmaputra, which moved west to meet the Ganga near Goalundo in Dacca via the much enlarged channel of the Jamuna. The merged waters of the two mighty Himalayan rivers, the Ganga and the Brahmaputra, poured into the Meghna near Chandpur in Tippera.” Padma and Meghna henceforth became two names etched deeply into east Bengali rural identity.

The strides taken eastward by the Ganga, assisted by a westerly

+ ‘Hari din to gelo, shondhe holo, par karo amare’ goes the Bengali refrain.

5 Birendra Nath Ganguli, Trends of Population and Agriculture in the Ganges Valley (London, 1938), p. 205.

6 Radha Kamal Mukerjee, The Changing Face of Bengal: a Study in Riverine Economy (Calcutta, 1938), p.9.

7 Ganguli, Trends of Population, p. 206.


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push of the Brahmaputra, moulded the differentiated ecological con- texts within which agriculture and agrarian society developed. The most striking contrast to emerge was the one between the active delta in the east and the moribund delta in west Bengal. The former became the full beneficiary of the fertilizing, flooding action of the overflowing rivers and came to be known as the land of the new alluvium. The latter suffered through the process of slow decay of its rivers and found its soil relegated to the status of the old alluvium. The divergence came to be reflected in the cropping patterns and ultimately in the demographic capacities of the two regions. Both were primarily areas of wet rice cultivation, but the silt-laden earth of the east yielded more. Parts of west central Bengal produced some sugar-cane and indigo in the early nineteenth century, especially during the brief revival of the streams passing through Murshidabad and Nadia. Later in the century cash crops shrank to insignificance in terms of acreage and there was even a marked shift from the superior winter (aman) rice to the inferior autumn (aus) variety. Meanwhile it was the November spectacle in east Bengal of rich, golden-green sheafs of winter paddy waving gently in the breeze that so stirred the sensibilities of Bengali poets.’ From the 1870s a golden fibre, jute, began to take on importance as a cash crop, more so in the inland districts of the delta - Mymensingh, Dhaka, Faridpur and Tippera than in the littoral districts such as Bakarganj. The possibility of intensive double cropping helped sustain high densities of population.

Two other ecological zones, though smaller in extent than the active and the moribund deltas, deserve to be mentioned. First, a narrow strip of raised ground on the western fringes of Bengal formed a sort of halfway house on the way to the Chhotanagpur plateau. This was an area of less secure rice cultivation acutely susceptible to the vagaries of rainfall. Second, rising up from the northern edges of the deltaic plains were the Himalayan foothills. At a time when the plant producing the dye in west Bengal was being resented as an unwarranted imposition and the fibre of east Bengal had yet to reveal its magic, colonial capital discovered that a precious leaf grew in Jalpaiguri and Darjeeling. Once labour could be set to work on tea plantations in this terrain, the scope for both exploitation and profits proved to be immense.

8 Rabindranath Tagore in his famous song Sonar Bangla (Golden Bengal) sees the mother’s honeyed (indulgent) smile in the laden fields in November (‘O ma, aghrane tor bhara khete ki dekhechhi modhur hashi’).


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It has become increasingly evident in recent years that durability and change in the environment can hardly be regarded as purely natural phenomena. There is, of course, an element of helplessness against the fury of nature as when powerful cyclones and tidal surges have swept everything in their path in littoral Bengal. Yet human agency appears to have shown a little less ability in harnessing the forces of geography than in aggravating their destructive con- sequences. There is not much doubt that the building of road and railway embankments in the mid nineteenth century dislocated drain- age patterns and hastened the process of atrophy of rivers of the moribund delta. Stagnant pools became the breeding-ground of ano- pheles mosquitoes, the carrier of waves of malaria epidemics in the second half of the nineteenth century. The areas with the most extended railway and road networks were the ones that showed the highest incidence of malaria.? It was recognized in the early twentieth century that controlled river irrigation in the decaying west would not be feasible without constructing ‘a barrage across the Ganges’.!° A barrage was built at high cost in the 1960s but politics, among other factors, ensured that it had little positive impact on west Bengal agriculture.

Meanwhile, Bangladesh has remained vulnerable to devastating floods such as the ones in 1974 and 1988. In the aftermath of the 1988 floods, the military government of Bangladesh has been seeking funds to implement an ambitious plan mooted by French engineers to construct hundreds of miles of tall embankments that will contain the mighty rivers of the Bengal delta. On a conservative estimate this ‘development’ project, which would be the biggest ever in Bengal’s history and has received qualified backing from the World Bank, would cost $6 billion to build and $165 million in annual maintenance. This venture aiming at flood prevention rather than flood control would stop the natural beneficial flooding action by which the rivers have from time immemorial deposited fertile sediments along their banks. Drawn up without any reference to the peasants who are supposed to benefit from it, the plan is being seen by environmentally conscious critics to be fundamentally flawed on technical, economic and political grounds. If allowed to go ahead without consideration of more suitable alternatives or serious amendment, it may well turn

9 C.A. Bentley, Malaria and Agriculture in Bengal (Calcutta, 1925), pp. 27-32. 10 §. C. Majumdar, The Rivers of the Bengal Delta (Calcutta, 1942), p. 82.


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out to be the most disastrous human interference yet in the ecology of rural Bengal.'!

Nature, it is true, is not always bountiful, but nor does it entirely of its own accord exhaust the earth. On a long historical view it has displayed enduring nurturing qualities in rural Bengal. Yet even the best of these have proved increasingly insufficient since the 1930s in the struggle to carry the human burden.


The impression of rural Bangladesh and west Bengal apparently sinking under the weight of overpopulation in the 1990s is a far cry from the demographic ‘low-water mark’ that characterized the eastern Indian countryside in 1770. The great famine of that year had wreaked massive depopulation anywhere between one third and one fifth of the population of Bengal and neighbouring Bihar were thought to have died.!2 Nearly a century later, W. W. Hunter placed an absolute figure choosing quite arbitrarily the highest of the impressionistic ratios of contemporries. His conjecture, probably an overestimate, suggested a death toll of 10 million out of 30 million inhabitants of Bengal and Bihar.'3 Although no systematic count was taken of India’s population until the first decennial census of 1872, it is not impossible on the basis of scattered evidence prior to that date and more informed enumer- ation since then to establish the broad trends in population movements as well as the key points of inflection. Three distinct phases can be staked out within which to study the relationship between population and agricultural production: 1770-1860, 1860-1920 and 1920-90. From 1770 to about the m