Re-Reading A Classic

Peasant Insurgency in Colonial India

Anirban Biswas

Struggling people never die. Hence the history of the struggles of toilers continues to survive in myths, legends, novels, stories, as well as in historoigraphical works. But the question is how to view these struggles. It is quite possible to look at these struggles from different and even conflicting angles. These struggles have in most cases been drowned in blood, but nevertheless, they have time and again displayed the fighting power of the toilers and in the upshot forced some reforms and concessions from the oppressors. In a country like India, such struggles were predominantly peasant struggles. Official and elitist discourses on peasant uprisings used to look upon these uprisings as the activities of unruly mobs, or bandits. Even those who took the side of the peasantry often described the rebellions in such a manner that they were as if some spontaneous outbursts, lacking any definite consciousness or direction. Even the books written on the Tebhaga and Telengana uprisings have stressed the role of communist leaders and their modes of organizing the peasantry, but have often tended to neglect the fact that the latter accepted these leaders often on their own terms. On the whole, such writings are more descriptive than analytical in the sense that the writers have not cared to look into the deeper and in a sense more fundamental, aspects of the insurgencies that consisted in the independent thoughts and actions of the masses. Although these writings are not useless, what needs to be pointed out is that in them, peasants have been treated largely as objects, who rebelled only because they were victims of exploitation, and it has been argued implicitly that it was the participation of the leaders of the communist, socialist or other parties that lent a political character to the struggles, and introduced definite techniques of mobilization. To a lay but somewhat inquisitive reader, such accounts of peasant struggle must seem incomplete, because it is difficult for him to think that peasants took up arms and courted death at others' behest, without a consciousness of their own. When the peasantry of China, under the leadership of Mao Ze-dong, Zu Te and other revolutionary leaders, fought against the reactionary Chiang clique and Japanese aggressors, they accepted these leaders definitely on their own terms. In the Indian case too, when peasants fought against the colonial regime, they and their leaders of peasant origin, although not familiar with the modern theories of revolution, must have had some sort of consciousness and hence earlier writings on peasant movements were bound by the limitation of seeing them as spontaneous or pre-political movements. Ranajit Guha, the author of a brilliant treatise on the Permanent Settlement in Bengal and the founding father of the subaltern school of historiography, now a nonagenarian, is possibly the first historian to have transcended this historiographical limitation in his book "Elementary Aspects of Peasant Insurgency in Colonial India". [Oxford University Press, 1983]

One may argue with some apparent reasonableness, "Why write on a book that was published three decades ago? Hasn't it outlived its usefulness?" It is true, that the book was first published in India in 1983, but it is a classic in its own right—there are similar classics of Indian historiography e.g. R C Dutt's Economic History of India, or D D Kosambi's Introduction to the Study of Indian History. These works did not deal with peasant movements—R C Dutt was a civilian serving the British administration for about twenty five years—but they are still read, quoted and discussed. Hence a rereading of Ranajit Guha's book is not altogether useless and nobody willing to discuss the history of peasant struggles in India can seemingly dispense with this book.

The author's methodology and outlook are articulated in the introductory chapter. For example, referring to the rebellion of Titu Mir, the Santal Insurrection and the Munda uprising, the author suggests quite forcefully : "that the raj they wanted to substitute for the one they were out to destroy did not quite conform to the model of a secular and national state and their concept of power failed to rise above localism, sectarianism and ethnicity, does not take away from the essentially political character of their activity but defines the quality of that politics by specifying its limitations." Here the author sharply remarks that the concept of pre-political rebellion elaborated by Eric Hobsbawm does not help much in understanding the peasant insurgencies of colonial India. These rebellions were political in the sense that the insurgents had a conception of power of their own. If such uprisings were political in nature, the participants in them must have had some sort of political consciousness. This is the consciousness the book seeks to explore. In order to do so, the author isolates six distinct aspects of peasant uprisings, namely negation, ambiguity, modality, solidarity, transmission and territoriality, and analyzes their various forms with strong empirical evidence. Of course, he has taken the help of official records and the reports of the representatives of the ruling order. He was presumably constrained to do so, because they were the only written original source materials available to him. But he has drawn different conclusions from these reports by an intelligent and insightful method of inversion and analysis. As he himself explains in the epilogue to his book, "Since our access to rebel consciousness lay, so to say, through enemy country, we had to seize on the evidence of elite consciousness and force it to show us the way to its Other." In fact, it is a work in which a laborious study of source materials has been elegantly combined with subtlety of analysis, backed by lucidity and brilliance of presentation.

What is negation, as the author views it? It is the destruction of the symbols of authority of those against whom the rebellion is directed. The author here describes two distinct modalities of negation. The first is discrimination, which means selectivity in choosing the targets, which represented an understanding of the distinction between enemies and allies. Such negations, as the author observes, 'had a tendency to extend its domain by a process of analogy and transference', which he calls its atidesa function. The author illustrates this observation from the accounts of the Swing movement in England and various other insurrections and revolts in India. One example given from the reports about the great Rebellion of 1857 is worth quoting : "When, for instance, the villagers in Allahabad district responded to the mutiny at the sadar station by their own uprising, they made little distinction in their attack between official and non-official institutions. 'The very asylums built from charitable funds provided by the Christian population for the relief of the [victims] were burnt down and demolished with as much ill-will as our public offices', wrote a bewildered and somewhat pained British magistrate reporting the holocaust to his superior." The atidesa function is thus seen to defy the principle of discrimination.

The other modality of negation is witnessed in "the peasants' attempt to destroy or appropriate for themselves the signs of the authority of those, who dominate them". This corresponds with Mao's famous characterization of Human Revolt of 1927, 'turning things upside down'. Here Ranajit Guha provides many examples of such inversive function. One interesting point to which he draws the reader's attention is that such inversions were, in many places, allowed to take ritually on some sacred days during relatively peaceful times. This was, as the author aptly points out, a clever precautionary device against future occurrence of real inversions. In times of revolt, however, these rituals were thrown to the winds and the symbols of authority destroyed. These symbols were not only material symbols, but cultural ones as well. This was witnessed by the acts of desecration of Christian churches in Germany, or of desecration of Hindu shrines by Muslims peasants oppressed by a Hindu landlord. About this aspect of negation, the author makes the pertinent but necessary observation. "It was no doubt a project predicated on power, but its terms were derived from the very structure of authority against which he had been driven to revolt." One may say with skepticism that even after the emergence of the modern proletariat and the communist party, such projects have more often than not been projects not of power, but of reforms, as far as the Indian scenario is concerned. Exceptions have been there, such as the Telengana and Naxalbari uprisings or the famous agrarian movement of Gopiballavpur of 1969-70. But they were exceptions.

In the third chapter of the book, Guha analyzes the different perceptions regarding a peasant rebellion, as well as the relation between a crime and a rebellion. 'Crimes' were often committed out of desperation, and certain classes of crime were often social protest, having an inversive function. In this sense they have a point in common with insurgencies. 'But these two types of violence are clearly distinguished in one important respect. Unlike crime peasant rebellions are necessarily and invariably public and communal events'. Conspiratorial and individualistic social protest called crimes when they grow in frequency, are liable to acquire a public character and be transformed into insurrections. Official readings of such protests as acts of banditry were mistaken, and they realized this mistake only when such burst into open rebellions.

Ranajit Guha's meticulous account of the events preceding the Santal rebellion and the mutiny of 1857 ably demonstrates the existence of such miscognition. Characterization of such insurrections by the authorities was also ambiguous, as is evidenced by alternative uses of the terms 'rebels' and 'dacoits'. Here a point may be made. Calling peasants and peasant leaders 'bandits' are not always symptomatic of a miscognition; such words may be used for deliberately blackening the image of insurrections. For example, in pre-revolution China, the Kuomintang and the Western propaganda media often characterized Mao Ze dong and his colleagues as 'red bandits'. As Guha brilliantly notes, each rebellious act has an ambivalence, 'wired at the same time to two different codes—the code of individualistic or small group deviance from the law where it originates and that of collective social defiance which adopts it—it bears the twin signs of birth-mark and a becoming. It is precisely this duplex character that permits it to be interpreted as one way or the other depending on the interpreter's point of view' ('it's terrible' or 'it's fine').

The difference between insurgency and common crime is that unlike the latter, the former is public, collective, destruction and total in its modalities. Of course, there are, in some cases, open affirmations, of purpose in social banditry, but in rebellions, such affirmations are more pronounced. These rebellions, as Guha points out were generally preceded by consultations and parleys, often followed by large gatherings, which prepared the ground of collective action. Such gatherings were committed, because they were always apprehensive that such gatherings might at any moment break out into open rebellions. One of the features of these rebellions consisted of systematic attempts at destroying anything connected with the lifestyle as well as power of the enemy. Another was that the articles looted during the insurrection were shared collectively or placed under the central command. One important and noteworthy point elegantly brought to light by the author is that killings during such insurrections were relatively few in number compared with incidences of other acts of violence. Killing was, however, a principal method of action resorted to by the colonial state when it took reprisals on the rebellious people.

The author's analysis of another aspect of these insurgencies, solidarity, is interesting as well as illuminating in the sense that he was extricated himself from the fake left notion of viewing every peasant uprising as pure class struggle without any ethnic or other identity content. Ethnic solidarity intermingled with class solidarity even in the great Tebhaga and Telengana struggles. Similarly, communal considerations got mixed up with class hatred in many nineteenth century revolts e.g. Titu Mir's revolt, Mopala risings and Pabna disturbances. Guha observes that the very fact of these revolts being directed against Hindu landlords and moneylenders as well as the British authorities but not against common Hindus proves the prevalence of class antagonism. Guha provides enough examples of inter-tribal solidarity and takes the Santal Rebellion for special analysis, because in this rebellion, almost all of the various non-Santal labouring castes came to support the Santal population for reasons of their own, which Guha seeks to analyze. He also shows that the quality of this solidarity was sometimes unstable and uneven. This solidarity sometimes took the form of an alliance between the dominant religious community and identities outside it, between Muslims and some Hinduised castes. Guha's comment on the strength of such solidarity is sharp and worth quoting. "It is precisely because it was a representation of popular conscience that solidarity such as this could stand upto much strain." The will of majority here played the decisive role, and the minority succumbed to the majority either voluntarily or after facing some sort of coercion or intimidation. Punishing dissidents was a feature of almost all uprisings, and leaders of uprisings did not care much for distinguishing between various shades of dissidence and non-conformity and downright treachery.

Ranajit Guha has taken care to analyze the non-military methods used by the authorities to crush insurgencies. They mostly preferred decoys, but the limited success of this method illustrates the solidarity among the rebels. This method succeeded partly only when the insurgencies were on the brink of defeat and demoralization in the face of the power of guns. But the rebel's hostility against traitors is understandable, as Guha argues, in terms of a double displacement, displacement of peasant servant by a rebel, and the displacement of a rebel by a traitor. The anger against the traitor, who belonged to the same class as that of the rebel, was thus a defense of solidarity. This anger thus operated 'as a class hatred laced with a self-harted'.

In the chapter on 'Transmission', the author analyzes what the colonial authorities labeled as 'contagion' when faced with the rapidity of the spread of rebellions. In such a rebellion that starts with one local disturbances, all the other such disturbances merge with one another, because when the revolt of the subalterns of one locality reaches those of other areas, their earlier grievances too are roused up and the whole of the population become united in revolt. Guha effectively demolishes the colonial administrators' notion of conspiracies, arguing, after Mao, that it was the open and overbearing presence of exploitation and oppression that 'provided insurgency with the objective conditions of its development and transmission.' This is no doubt a brilliant observation, and shows the limitations of the colonial mind in understanding the nature of this transmission. Guha also narrates the modes of this transmission, which were verbal as well as non-verbal, the latter being aural and visual. He has sought to analyze the role played by drums, flutes, boughs and chapatis in the propagation of the messages of insurgency. The distribution of chapattis, which spread in much of upper India, among the peasanty, however, was not unambiguous in its meaning, and in fact, it had different meanings for different people. Chapatis, in preceding periods, were circulated in the hope that it would protect the population from epidemic, but they came to be distributed again before the mutiny. They had also been distributed immediately before the downfall of the Maratha empire. It may not be out of place to quote a few lines from Guha to present the profoundly insightful nature of his reading of the evidence. "The power of analogy seems to have helped to shift the sense of the circulating chapati from pathology to politics; a carrier of one kind of catastrophe it came to symbolize, by a semantic slide, a catastrophe of an altogether different kind and the calamity that had overtaken the Maratha empire was believed to be about to visit the British too. The sign was thus assigned a predictive function—the function of an omen exuding evil forebodings. However, it is by no means clear what was being predicted in this case except that it was an unspecified kind of 'some great disturbance'. Such vagueness of meaning which arises from the multiplicity of the aspects of a sign and makes for polysemy, is indeed an essential characteristic of an omen." On the verbal methods of transmission, the author observes that written communications were exceptional. What is more important is that written utterances were sometimes used to deverbalize them and "exploit the resulting opacity in order to provide that graphic representation with new 'signified'." This was evidenced during the French Revolution and during the Santal rebellion. Among the spoken methods of transmission, the author stresses night cries, speeches in the name of some surreal and mythical powers, and rumours. Rumours, besides frightening the potential targets of insurrections, served as powerful weapons of the transmission of the message of insurgency, and its power was acknowledged by the authorities as well as pro-imperialist historians. Guha analyzes the power of rumour with reason and evidence, and points out the differences between rumour and news, showing that rumour can by no means be treated as corrupted 'news'. It is tempting to quote one remark made by Guha, "Since rumour is 'immediate unpremeditated utterance' to recall Vygotsky once more, it is improvised within the rebel community not as a conscious device to rally the people, but spontaneously, by the force of ideology alone, so far as the insurgents themselves are concerned." This was amply demonstrated on the eve of the Great Rebellion of 1857 and numerous other uprisings. And also: "In conditions of emergency it represents an attempt on the part of its interlocutors to make sense of a challenge to an established authority by matching their perception of the by then inevitably strained or already modified relations of power with a 'preformed scheme' or 'code of political thinking'. This code often took an essentially religious character in the apotheosis of certain leaders as divine representatives and in respecting the prophesies of a priest". About the circulation of prophesies, there is another brilliant observation, "The circulation of prophetic rumours in the course of the events discussed above was thus symptomatic of self-estrangement on the part of the typical peasant rebel of our period: it testified to that false consciousness which made him look upon his own acts of resistance as a manifestation of another's will."

Under semi-feudal socio-economic conditions, peasant insurgencies are inevitably limited by perceptions about ethnicity and lineage, as well as by a sense of belonging to a common habitat. Guha calls the combination of these elements 'territoriality' and shows how in each of the important peasant rebellions, the space of the rebellion was defined in terms of it. As he puts it succinctly, "The tribe was..... was not merely the initiator of a rebellion but was its site as well. Its consciousness of itself as a body of insurgents was thus indistinguishable from its recognition of its ethnic self." The notion of ethnic space found its correlate in the idea about the physical space, in the urge to find a 'homeland' and the drive to recover lost lands. This localism, deplored by Trotsky and even sometimes by Mao, sometimes saved the affluent living outside the desired 'homeland' from pillages by the rebels, and sometimes, as during the Great Rebellion of 1857, helped the spread of rebellion from the barracks and cantonments to the countryside. The towns were local seats of administration as well as the dwelling places of the moneylenders. Hence mutinous outbursts in towns, appearing as the symbol of the weakening of the raj, encouraged the rural peasantry of neighbouring villages to conduct raids on the towns and attack both adversaries. This certainly defines the territoriality of rebel violence. The territoriality was sometimes expressed in ethnic solidarity, because "Most though by no means all of the villages from which the mass of armed peasantry issued from time to time to harry the nearest towns were single-caste settlements." Guha provides enough examples to demonstrate his point, and also shows how mutineers influenced their caste brethren to rise in revolt. He however notes the cases in which the territoriality cut across caste divides, and also discusses the geographical aspects of territorially. Territoriality which represented an intersection between the_he spread of rebellions, drawing many that did not belong to the original rebel population and crossing the original geographical site of the rebellion. The significance of territorialty during the period under discussion, according to Guha, was that 'it provided the anti-colonialist mass struggles of our people with some kind of an armature, however imperfect this might have been, at a time when organized nationalism (barring some organized militant groups) were either elitist or collaborationist, and the class organization of the working people were either non-existent and ineffective." Guha however is not unaware of the limitation of this armature as his next lines show. "Quite clearly the domain of rebellion still fell far short of the domain of the nation, and the two arms of territoriality, that is co-residential solidarity and primordial loyalty, acted to no small extent in putting the brakes on resistance of the Raj. Narrow localism raised its head and impeded the progress of the insurgents at critical moments.,. ...And the use made by the government of some sections of the non-tribal peasantry in order to suppress the hool demonstrated how ethnicity was no substitute for class consciousness.." But Guha concludes, not illegitimately, that the beginnings of later broad mass movements can be situated in this fragmented insurgent consciousness.

To this writer's mind, Guha's book has not outlived its necessity for at least two reasons. First of all. he has tried to liberate the bhadralok mind from the elitist dogma about peasant uprisings: what is terrible to the defenders of the status quo may be 'fine' to others.

Secondly. and more importanatly, he by highlighting the subject of ethnicity, demonstrates that what is needed is a judicial understanding of the combination of class and identity questions in order to build up real class unity. These questions are not irrelevant to Indian politics of today. The more one goes through the book, the more one must be impressed by the author's range of study and  observation, logical and empirical coherence of presentation and brilliant lucidity of the language. The book, it is clear, was directly inspired by the Naxalbari uprising, which put many questions to the Indian progressives and revived the interest in studying peasant movements. Hence such creations may be considered as one of the lasting products of Naxalbari and the struggles that emerged in its wake.

Frontier, Autumn Number
Vol. 46, No. 13-16, Oct 6 - Nov 2, 2013

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