This post is designed to recap a few points regarding peasant rebellions, consciousness that we had discussed in class. I think you’d take more out of it, if you have done your readings. In any case, its designed to try and get you thinking about what you’ve read. Hope its useful . (as usual, thanks to Gautam & co. again)

The arguments of Ranajit Guha in The Elementary Aspects of Peasant Insurgency in Colonial India are significant in laying down the basis on which it is argued that the peasant has an independent political consciousness. Guha states that: ‘the general orientation of… elitist historiography is to represent Indian nationalism as primarily an idealist venture in which the indigenous elite led the people from subjugation to freedom… a sort of spiritual biography of the Indian elite.’

The relation of dominance and subordination, for the extraction of surplus, in Guha’s opinion, makes it a ‘political relation… a semi-feudal relationship which derived its material sustenance from pre-capitalist conditions of production and its legitimacy from a traditional culture still paramount in the superstructure.’ This had the consequence of debt, loss of land etc and surplus concentration in the hands of the state/British and their agents such as the zamindar.

These revolts are often characterized as being “pre-political” in most mainstream historical writing due to the fact that they neither had a blueprint nor clearly defined aims and often lacked a magnetic leader. Thus, these were “pocket revolts” more than a conscious movement of the peasants.

How can we say that the peasants had consciousness?

First, consciousness was an acknowledgement of their state of being – in effect a negation of their oppressors. Guha (R) argues that they do this by expressing it in the language of the oppressor. Second, while their acts were often characterized as “criminal”, he points out that the fact that these were activities undertaken at the level of the community, they cannot be characterized as criminal in that sense. Third, they attacked public authority through acts which actively served to undermine authority rather than because they were criminal in nature. Fourth, there was group solidarity, the basis for which may have differed from group to group but usually was in negation to the authority rebelled against. Further, these groups exhibited “territoriality” in that they defined the span of their activities by the manner in which they envisaged the spread of the dominant authority’s spread coupled with their ethnic spread.

They also believed that the peasant consciousness is not something that is created by the choice of an individual based on his preferences but is a network of social relations and solidarity which are pre-existent. This is why, according to Partha Chatterjee, the subaltern perspective cannot be understood by the ‘bourgeois paradigm’. Rather, he places importance on the concept of community, which he feels has been left ‘formal, abstract and empty’ by Guha, a proper theoretical context.

Essentially, Chatterjee considers community to be the site of peasant struggle where respective rights and duties are established and contested. This community is defined by the deeply and intricately stratified social relations, and the continual and pervasive struggle between peasants and dominant groups in everyday life.

Popular representations include that the refusal of the peasant to put up with the oppressive measures is seen by colonial historians as minor skirmishes. (The Imperialist describe the Indian village as being in a state of decay, to be restored by the intervention of the colonial state).
On the other hand, Nationalist historians too have presented a pitiable picture of peasant uprisings. While the causes of the discontent among the peasants are shown to be the oppression of the Colonial system of revenue collection, the uprisings are depicted as spontaneous, unorganized, unthinking and violent.

Marxist historians, too, fail to attribute to agency to the peasant. Irfan Habib takes the stance that the ‘basic feature of peasant movements… is their comparatively backward level of class-consciousness’. He also goes on to mention that the peasant’s first acquisition of self-awareness was due to the National movement

Chew on these:

1. Is Guha’s methodology on subaltern historiography too absolute in its characterization of peasant consciousness? (Does he function by attributing characteristics – i.e. is he reliant on correlation rather than causality while he makes his arguments? Again, do the “elite” historians, in turn, also attribute characteristics to subalterns that they assume is true –such as they being mute and handicapped on their own. How would you respond to this?)
2. Are subalterns homogenous groups being represented as homogenous?
3. Do/Can peasants only express themselves through “rebellions/insurgency”?
4. Are the revolts to the same authority figures? If not, what kind of homogeneity can be attributed t them? (What does Sarkar say about this? Clue: Shift from the british to the more immediate oppressor- so how do we see revolts say pre-1857 and most of the revolts post then – against whom are they directed?)
5. Do the middle class have a role in mobilizing or organizing the peasants? If so, around when can this said to have started and why?
6. Even if we criticize Guha’s methodology, does that detract from the point that the popular representation of peasants showing a lack of consciousness is flawed?
7. Are Guha & Co. concerned with whom the rebellion was against as much as that it was against a certain type of figure?
8. Does the fact that these are more localized movements make them less important?
9. Given that the popular representation of the peasants in history is of being “ignorant, simple, easily influenced by the elite classes and impoverished”, how do subalterns respond to such representations?
10. Are the explanations of the Imperialists and the Nationalists unable to explain adequately the peasant uprisings of the nineteenth century?
11. What is the role of the congress in the later peasant uprisings? Doe sit become a forum for them – for e.g.: does the Congress actively champion their cause? Is this an organized move on the Congress’ part? (is this question a “nationalist” representation of the peasant rebellion) (answered? Does the question imply that the peasants had no organization, consciousness till the Congress stepped in? Does it “attribute” the character of obedience to them?) [Can you link this up to anything Bipin Chandra is saying?]
12. From a Marxist perspective can we say that the peasant rebellions were a socialist movement given the marxist’s conception of historical change? How does this tie up with a lot of Marxist writing (about India) that our consciousness was largely a product of middle-class and elite consciousness and leadership?


In the last class i tink we touched on the subject of : “who invented hinduism”? David Lorenzen in his article: “Who invented hinduism”  argues:

Over the past decade, many scholars have put forward the claim that Hinduism was constructed, invented, or imagined by British scholars and colonial ad- ministrators in the nineteenth century and did not exist, in any meaningful sense, before this date.

One of the themes that he examines is:

“Hindus” and their religion, but he joins the above scholars in claiming that the terms “do not correspond to any indigenous Indian concept, either of geogra- phy or religion.”

The claim that he makes is:

that the claim that Hinduism was invented or constructed by European colonizers, mostly British, sometime after 1800 is false. The evi- dence instead suggests that a Hindu religion theologically and devotionally grounded in texts such as the Bhagavad-gita, the Puranas, and philosophical commentaries on the six darsanas gradually acquired a much sharper self-con- scious identity through the rivalry between Muslims and Hindus in the period between 1200 and 1500, and was firmly established long before 1800.

For those that are interested:  Download Who Invented Hinduism.

Note: I have not put up last week’s class reviews due to the continued absence of my notebook.

This one follows up on the previous one (and again, read the real thing and finish up with a reading of this):


When the British first came to India, they were reluctant to administer law and justice because the primary aim was profit, and moreover, there was not that sharp a distinction between administration of law and justice in India and in Britain.

The existing decision-making apparatus could be classified in the following ways:

a)      Tribal systems with customary law and power in the hands of the community elders.

b)      Among the agriculturalists, prestige-based leadership was responsible for resolving small disputes; political governors (often Brahmans) intervened when disputes threatened to spin out of control. The concept of unity was strong. Hence, compromise, bargaining and adjudication were common forms of dispute resolution.

c)      Among the rural landowners and the town-dwellers, a similar system, although more crystallized, operated. The Panchayati Raj was prevalent. Occasionally, the Brahmans were consulted; if the Shastras and Smritis had no provision to resolve the dispute, the Brahmans acknowledged the force of customary law.

d)      Brahman sub-castes were served by the Smritis and their own jurisprudence. However, actual enforcement was loose and ad-hoc.

It is important to note that when the Muslims came, they respected the existing system of laws and did not attempt to enforce their own. In places like Bengal, there were even two systems of parallel laws.

The British administration early attracted litigants. The reason lay in the immediacy and violence of the remedies offered. The commercial class were the first to realise this. It was also used as a tool of exploitation against people who didn’t know its workings. Where what was essentially an English court, set up under an English charter, dealt with a case between natives, English law and English remedies were inevitable.

The victory in 1764 brought in further complications, as the British were now obliged to administer justice. The system that the British developed included bringing in British judges who were largely untrained, and use of military forces available for extorting land revenue and keeping the peace as a weapon of coercion. What basically emerged was a system by which European overseers authorised at their discretion the decisions made and enforced by native officials of Government who administered whatever law struck them as suitable. The British, given their own background, wanted precedent and certainty, and enforced a legal system with a disregard for social distinctions.

The result of this was that litigation began to be used as a weapon of policy. At the same time, caste tribunals dealt with spiritual matters. The Panchayats were the ones who lost out.

In 1772, Hastings secured that indigenous systems should be applied, and the judges should be specialists in those systems. The responsibility would be shared between the officer and the native jurist, both signing the final document. The mistake was that the relationship between custom and dharmashastra was taken for granted. The judges were also referred to the concept of Justice, Equity and Good Conscience.

Derrett contends, however, that Hastings original selection of topics was not intended to exclude indigenous law, because for certain non-listed matters, the customary law was to be binding. However, the sources were the Pundits.

It is also interesting to note that by drawing a wrong analogy between the shastras and canonical law, Hastings mistakenly assumed that the Shastras were an all-pervasive, universal fountainhead of law. Soon, however, discrepancies began to appear. The corruption of the Pundits was also a problem. This led to two movements: an attempt at stabilising the law by requiring it to be digested and authenticated; and secondly, a closer scrutiny of the rules that emerged.

Thus, the British method of deducing the law from European text writers’ idea of what the Pundits meant, coupled with whatever might be deduced from the translation of a few prominent Sanskrit legal texts, led to the formation of a very artificial sort of law. Weights given to authorities varied, they were sometimes disregarded, commentaries might or might not be recognised and there were often mistakes in interpretation. Precedent, once established, was followed blindly. At the same time, the word of the Hindu judges was treated with great respect, as it would probably be most acceptable to the people.

The basic faults were the following:

a)      The great chasm between custom and law remained

b) The English system of piecemeal manufacture of law proved costly and embarrassing

c)      There was very little review of existing law. This bred litigation, made law teaching painful, and led to many anomalies.

There was also distortion, because segments of Hindu law were separated from the entire corpus. Apart from this, English procedural method altered much substantive law. However, the judges were also careful that analogies from foreign systems should not warp their judgment. However, this was not always possible, e.g. obiter dicta.

This period also saw the rise of the middle class, and a new social group for whom the customary laws were unsatisfactory, and the answers to whose problems could not be found in the Shastras. Hence, new legal institutions such as English-type negotiable instruments, came into the picture. Also, wherever there were gaps, English laws filled in. The concepts of “justice, equity and good conscience” were also frequently used.


This is  a special (late evening) edition of historytoo.wordpress.com . Gautam brings to you his take on Gledhill and Co. Again, it is to be noted that this is just to keep your heads above water in class and are definitely not a substitute for your readings (a bulk of the facts have been left out for one,  so has a fair bit of his analysis).

In any case:

What Gledhill Says

a)      The Joint Family: The Mitakshara Law of the joint family was in operation. Anglo-Indian law changed it in the following ways:

1) In case of an unpaid debt on the part of a coparcener, it resolved the conflict of interest between other coparceners and the creditor by holding the creditor’s interest paramount. The coparcener’s undivided interest was liable to attachment and sale. The creditor’s interest would be paramount even in case of the death of the coparcener. The logical deductive conclusion to this would be that the coparcener should have the right to alienate his undivided interest. However, the Courts were hesitant to take the logic to its extreme. At any rate, the law was clearly designed to encourage partition.

2) There was also a change in the doctrine of pious obligation. Hitherto, a son was obliged to pay his father’s debts. The obligation, which arose after the father’s death, was unlimited save for immoral debts. The Courts interpreted this to mean that the father had a right to alienate his son’s interest, and vested this right in the creditor. The obvious effect of this step would be to encourage a demand for partition by sons against an extravagant or unwise father.

3)      The manager of a joint family could alienate the corpus of the joint family property in case of legal necessity or for the benefit of the estate. While holding that new businesses were for the benefit of the estate, the Courts also held that the Mitakshara gave the manager no power to impose on a minor coparcener the risk and liability of a new business, and moreover, the term “new business” was strictly construed. Various other restrictions put the joint family business at a disadvantage as compared to others, thus encouraging the break-up of the joint family.

4)      Fourthly, coparceners taking up learned professions also found that their situation had changed; earlier, because their families had paid for the expenses of education, their earnings were the families’. This position was reversed, further leading to the break-up of the joint family.

b)      Marriage: Abolition of sati, the Widow Remarriage Act, The Indian Succession Act all brought about changes in the lives of widows. The Special Marriage Act provided for consent and divorce. The Sharda Act provided for criminal sanctions for child marriages.

c)      Adoption:

d)      Inheritance: In Mitakshara Law, the main principle was that inheritance was only concerned with individual property, and that the nearest agnate succeeded. British impact was indirect, at best. The Doctrine of Lapse was a failed experiment. Various texts disqualified persons suffering from mental and physical infirmities. A number of females were inserted in the inheritance pyramid. In 1937, the widow was given the same rights as the son. This was a move away from the traditional joint family notion to a new social unit comprising of the husband, the wife and the children.

e)      Impartible Estates: An impartible estate is one that devolves to a single heir in accordance with an established rule. The texts were silent, and it was the courts that evolved the rules. Through a number of moves such as recognising the alienable nature of the impartible estate, and prohibiting the creating of new impartible estates except with the permission of the crown, it was a tendency on part of Anglo-Indian law to make property in general more freely transferable.

f)        Wills:

g)      Religious and charitable endowments: The English imported a number of their doctrines for the purposes of determining the validity of religious and charitable endowments.

(Link this up with the second stage of colonialism)

Apologies for the delay in putting these up (at least the net’s back up!)

These are the essential readings for the next few days of class:

JDM Derrett – The Administration of Hindu Law

Rudolph – Barristers and Brahmans

David Skuy – Macaulay & the IPC – Myth of superiority of English legal system

Alan Gledhill – The influence of Common law and equity on Hindu law since 1800

Mattison Mines – Courts of Law & Styles of self in 18th century Madras

A Impact of Colonialism on Law: An Examination of Indigenous, Influenced and Borrowed Law and its Institutions

During the First Stage

• J. Duncan M. Derrett, The Administration of Hindu Law by the British in Comparative Studies in Society and History, Vol. 4, No. 1. (Nov., 1961), pp. 10-52.

• Alan Gledhill, The Influence of Common Law and Equity on Hindu Law since 1800 in The International and Comparative Law Quarterly, Vol. 3, No. 4. (Oct., 1954), pp. 576-603.

Suggested Further Reading:
• Lloyd I. Rudolph & Susanne Hoeber Rudolph, Barristers and Brahmans in India: Legal Cultures and Social Change in Comparative Studies in Society and History, Vol. 8, No. 1. (Oct., 1965), pp. 24-49.

• Madhu Kishwar, Codified Hindu Law: Myth and Reality in Economic and Political Weekly, Vol. 29, No. 33 (Aug. 13, 1994), pp. 2145-2161

During the Second Stage

• Elizabeth Kolsky, Codification and the Rule of Colonial Difference: Criminal Procedure in British India in Law and History Review, Vol. 23, No. 3 (Fall, 2005), pp. 631-683

• David Skuy, Macaulay and the Indian Penal Code of 1862: The Myth of the Inherent Superiority and Modernity of the English Legal System Compared to India’s Legal System in the Nineteenth Century in Modern Asian Studies, Vol. 32, No. 3. (Jul., 1998), pp. 513-557.

During the Third Stage

• Mattison Mines, Courts of Law and Styles of Self in Eighteenth-Century Madras: From Hybrid to Colonial Self in Modern Asian Studies, Vol. 35, No. 1. (Feb., 2001), pp. 33-74.
• Marc Galanter, The Aborted Restoration of ‘Indigenous’ Law in India in Comparative Studies in Society and History, Vol. 14, No. 1 (Jan., 1972), pp. 53-70


this post will take you a few classes back. In this post, Shivam, succinctly summarises Romila Thapar’s “Interpretations of Indian History: Colonial, Nationalist, Post-colonial”. 

It is important to remember the critical role that historiography plays in our analysis of what we read. Time and again, through this course, we will have to fall back on what we have learned in Historiography in order to get the context of what the writers are saying and why they are saying so.


Interpretations of Indian History: Colonial, Nationalist, Post-colonial


This article basically discusses the different schools of historiography which are prevalent in the history writing of Modern India. There is nothing very afresh in the article except for the analysis and critique of the subaltern school of historiography which in my view is important.




The modern historiography of India, was enunciated by the British in the late 18th and 19th centuries. The historiography was done with the presupposition that the Indian culture was a-historical and hence unique. This resulted in the process ‘discovering of the Indian past’ by the colonial historians.


The modern historiography of India can be divided into three broad schools,

  • Firstly, the colonial interpretation.
  • Secondly, the Nationalist interpretation[S1] .
  • Thirdly, the post-colonial interpretation.


The Colonial Interpretation

  • The colonial historiography of India was based on the pre-conceptions and debates about the orient in the then European society. This resulted in the creation of the ‘stereotype’ of the Indian society which was the ‘other’ to the European society.
  • The second point to be noted is that, as the colonial belief went, that, ‘knowledge is power’, the history of India was being shaped in a way, so as to help in legitimising the European control over the sub-continent.
  • The two sub-schools under this system are:


Orientalist School of Historiography:  This school tried to link the history of India to the history of Europe. This was done, by the study of languages(as the European and the Indian languages both belong to the strata of Indo-European languages with the same origin). They also tried to link the biblical texts of India like the Dharmashastras to those present in Europe, again indicating similar origin of both these civilisations.


This school also studied the social structures like the caste system in India. This was important not only from the point of intellectual curiosity but it was of administrative importance as well, as this knowledge was helpful in furthering colonial rule in India.


This school to a large extent, considered India as an exotic civilisation bereft of all material considerations and a civilisation which focussed on aspects like spiritualism and other similar meta-physical concepts. This can be interpreted as ‘in part a reflection of an escape from 19th century European industrialisation and the changes which this industrialisation brought, which were somehow difficult to comprehend.’


One important thing to be noted about this school is that it was the first to apply the Aryan label to the Indian society[S2] , which again pointed to a unified origin of the Indian and European societies. Further, they intermingled caste and race, and thus the upper castes were considered Aryan(as they were advanced) and the lower castes were considered of non-aryan and mixed origins.


In my view this school and its prominent historians like Max Muller were to a large extent responsible in the creation of the ‘stereotype[S3] ’ of the Indian society in the European academic and social discourses. It should also be noted that, the nature of colonial rule in this school was non-interventionist in nature.



Utilitarian School of Historiography: This school also believed in the ‘exocity’ of Indian society, but it used those facts to state that the Indian society lacked rationality and individualism and hence the European civilisation was needed to make the ‘stagnant’ Indian society ‘progressive’. This was a departure from the oriental school’s non-interventionist policies. This school of historiography is responsible for the three staged periodisation of the Indian history into, the Hindu civilisation, the Muslim civilisation and the British period.


This school created the concepts of ‘oriental despotism’ , which again was used to legitimise the colonial conquest of the sub-continent.It should be noted that this change in historical thinking also coincided with a change in the colonial policies. By this time the colonial conquest of India was nearly complete, and the need of the hour was to reconstruct the economic structure of the colony, so as to be a source of raw material and an importer of the finished British goods. Thus, the change from a non-interventionist to an interventionist ruler, required certain kinds of interpretation of the history of India, which was provided by the utilitarian historians.


It should also be noted that the concept of Indian society being the ‘other’ of the European societies, had an important place in this school of historiography. This is clear from the ideas of ‘Asiatic mode of production’  which is an anti-thesis of the ‘European mode of production’. This was used to give legitimacy to the British intervention in the sub-continent as it was necessary to break the stagnancy of the Indian society, so it was the lesser of the two evils, the first being remaining in the same stagnant state for eternity. This contrast between Europe and India became a primary concern, and in many cases resulted in the non-representation of those empirical facts which were not in congruence with the thesis.



The Nationalist Interpretation


This school of historians emerged towards the end of the 19th century. This was used for the anti-colonial movement for independence. In this school, history was used for two purposes, firstly, to establish the identity of Indians and secondly by establishing the superiority of the past over the present.


For the first purpose, the Aryan theory of race and other similar concepts came handy, whereas for the second purpose, the concept of the ‘golden era of the Hindu civilisation’ was created. This was done because the remoteness in history of the ‘golden age’ was directly proportional to its utility in imaginative reconstructions and inversely proportional to factual scrutiny.


The basic thing to be noted is that, the colonial nationalists to a large extent used the same methods of historiography as the imperialists but they interpreted these ‘facts’ differently so as to suit their socio-political needs. Though they did reject some of the imperial concepts like ‘oriental despotism’ etcetera but to a large extent they agreed on the historical facts with the imperialists.


This school was also responsible for the rise of religious nationalism based on the classification of the Hindu and Muslim civilisations. It has been argued that this was the period where the concept of separate countries for hindu’s and muslims was conceptualised.


These interpretations are in the view of Ms. Thapar, distortions of Indian history. She states, “they are ideologically limited and intellectually even somewhat illiterate, because history becomes a kind of catechism in which the questions are known, the answers are known and there is adherence to just those questions and answers. No attempt is made to explore intellectually beyond this catechism.”


The Post Colonial Interpretation


  • She does not discuss the Post-Independence Nationalist historians, all she says is that it is based on a communal interpretation, which has received a lot of political support.
  • The two major schools in this period are,


Marxist School of Historiography


She clearly states that Indian Marxist historians do not follow the theories of Marx and Engels regarding Asian history. All they do is to follow the Marxist analysis, the dialectical method and historical materialism which are all part of the Marxist philosophy. The basic point to be noted here is that the theories of Marx and Engels were based on their studies of the European society and economy[S4] . So, the applicability of these theories to the Indian historiography was not adequate. This is shown by the refutation of Marxist concepts like Asiatic mode of production; application of the five stages of European history etcetera.


The focus of Marxist historiography is on social and economic history and it has challenged the prevailing periodisation of Indian history as enunciated by Mills. The Marxists have also addressed the following important issues; the difference between pre-modern and modern societies; the differences between pre-capitalist and modern societies; changes in the caste system and the transition from clan to caste; interpretation of religion as social ideology etcetera.


Subaltern School of Historiography


This school believes that all other schools of history were elitist in nature as they were focussed on either the colonial state, the indigenous elites, the bourgeois nationalists or the middle class. So, they highlight the need to study the ‘participation of the subaltern groups’.


This school prefers local sources both private and popular in nature upon archives and official papers. They also use ‘oral tradition’ as legitimate historical source material. The following extract is useful in understanding this school, “they encourage the investigation of minutiae of what goes into the making of an event, of the author, of the audience, of the intention…… This kind of history then challenges the validity of making broad based historical generalisations. Each study is self contained. Eventually there are a large number of well documented studies with little cross connection.


Romila Thapar has certain objections to this school which are as follows, firstly, there attitude against generalisation is not acceptable to her as she thinks that by strictly avoiding generalisations there is a possibility of missing the big picture. She states that this school, ‘has no framework of explanation which relates itself to a central point and to which each study can refer’. So, there is a large possibility of missing the complete picture.   Secondly, she also disagrees with the axiom of this school that all readings are equally significant and that there can be no prioritisation of readings. This makes it in form similar to 19th century historiography which believed that all sources are equal.


In her view this school of historiography is still to make an impact on the historiography of pre-modern India. But, it has had a great impact on the history of the third world and has encouraged international comparative studies.


Her final conclusions are as follows:


The modern historiography of India is a continuing dialogue between colonial, nationalist and post-colonial interpretations. This has enriched historical theory and has also sharpened the debate and evaluation of comprehending the Indian past. She opines that this will provide for a more perceptive understanding of the past, which she thinks is essential on order to understand the present.


 [S1]The nationalist interpretation during the colonial period.

 [S2]This was in the context of the raging debate in the t hen European society regarding the superiority of the Aryan race.

 [S3]The idea of India being a spiritual, non-materialistic, a-historical and a stagnant civilisation.

 [S4] [S4]This point has been mentioned in the class.