From Biblio, March-April 1998, p. 27.
The landscape of history
Natural Premises: Ecology and Peasant Life in the
Western Himalaya 1800-1950
By Chetan Singh
Oxford University Press, 252 pp. Rs. 475
At the outset, Singh deals with issues of environment, territoriality and the state. While geography contributed to the delineation of boundaries between states -- the borders of states were usually defined by high mountain ridges, unfordable rivers or fast flowing mountain streams -- the argument of a "natural frontier" was also commonly used as an excuse for political expansion. The state, itself, was not uniform in the Himalayan region, but varied from centralized political entities in river valleys to small chieftainships in the higher ranges. Forests, pastures, and the agrarian economy of river valleys provided valuable resources for all such states.
Singh discusses the interaction between society and environment, detailing the carefully regulated balance of resource use in the mountain economy. Landholdings varied according to environmental zones and the proprietory rights of cultivators to the soil was based on the service provided by the holder of the local ruler. In other words, control over land was used to establish authority over people. Land was categorized by the availability of water, and its classification for revenue purposes was quite complex. Agriculture was largely subsistence-oriented. Maize, barley, wheat cereals, pulses and vegetables were the principal products although "cash crops" such as tobacco, poppy and hemp were also grown for the market. Without 'sanitizing' the internal dynamics of society at large, Singh delineates the simple social stratification, the flexibility of the caste system in western Himachal (inasmuch as Brahmins and Rajputs cultivated the land they owned), the assertive nature of the peasantry, and the social mobility of the artisan and lower castes.
The pastoral economy was also vibrant and largely trade-oriented. As pastoralists, various groups like the Gaddis and Gujjars, projected a distinct social identity which enabled them to interact more effectively with the state and settled society. Both these groups exercized their grazing rights on pastures and forest areas, and paid their taxes to local kings.
In highlighting the ecological diversity of the region, Singh argues for overlapping economic rationalities and extended economic considerations in the realm of markets -- domestic and international. There was regular trade in food grains, cattle for meat, milch and dairy use, and wool. Trade in wool bound the region internally and linked it to the international markets as well. The region also depended on the plains for commodities like salt, cotton, and sugar. The absence of money in neighbourhood trade, as opposed to its presence in long-distance trade, suggests the relatively slow penetration of money economy into the hill states.
This detailed contextualization of the region not only provides an empirically rich history of the period, but also cautions the reader about attributing change solely to the British. Without underscoring the point that the colonial period was a watershed in the history of the Western Himalayan region, Singh explains how the establishment of colonial rule altered many things, including socially defined notions of wealth. In the context of a highly developed market that transcended village-based agrarian rationality, forests now came to represent wealth in an unprecedented way. This led to the reorganization of regulations in which forest rights came to be indexed by colonial law. The nature and scale of human intervention began to change the basic characteristics of the regions' forests. More significantly, conservation and forestry were no longer seen in opposition to each other, but were systematically interlinked. The scale and speed of the commodification of timber marked the beginning of a process that undermined the multifaceted resource base of the region.
By declaring themselves the legitimate successors of local kings, the British claimed their privileges and authority in the region. They altered land-holding rights by emphasizing a proprietory claim of the peasantry on the soil, especially in areas closer to the plains. Within two decades (1870-1890), more than one-sixth of the land had been alienated. New crops such as potato not only opened up new areas to intensive cultivation, but also replaced clearings near pastures that were earlier used primarily for penning sheep. In the same vein, colonial administrators attempted to reduce grazing land and restrict the mobility of grazers.
Since the agrarian economy necessitated a combination of livestock farming (cattle or sheep, depending on the region) and the cultivation of food crops, local communities were greatly dependent on the 'intermediate spaces' (between forests and cultivated land) that the British were to soon label as 'wastes'. Singh undermines earlier opinions about these 'wastelands' as common property resources. In fact, these lands were granted to individual beneficiaries for supplementary use of grass and water supply. Singh suggests that the emergence of a market beyond the village economy and the escalating need for additional resources would have changed the attitude of the peasantry towards the 'wastes' irrespective of whether new rules were introduced by colonial administrators or-not. He clearly contests the view of commoditization as a neat process closely controlled by agents of capitalism and the colonial state. just as the impact of colonial policies varied with the sub-regions, the social response was equally diverse. The absence of a defined village community in western Himachal explains why peasants in the Kulu region responded less vociferously to regulations concerning 'wastelands' and forest regulations than those in the Kangra region.
The book leaves some questions unanswered and a few issues unaddressed. Singh does not sufficiently address the nature of the conflict over perceptions of the environment in general, and over access to use of resources, in particular. The market is defined as an activity, and yet the people who operate in it and around it, especially during British rule, remain faceless. The institutional basis of resource use and the disaggregated nature of the state appear to have been overlooked. We know that the state was neither monolithic, nor a perfect, transparent entity with a coherent logic of only revenue collection.
But then, Singh's book is about the life of the peasant in the Western Himalayan region, a peasant who escapes the distortions of colonial categorization. Many of these issues emerge because the author deals with broad-sweeping changes in the region, based solely on governmental printed records -- Gazetteers, Settlement Reports, and the Punjab Hill States Agency Records. The importance of this work lies in the author's recognition of the variety in the landscape, and of the equally complex life in the region without falling into the "abyss of environmental determinism". As Singh says at the very outset, the natural premises provided both the spatial context within which the peasant lived, and the logical assumptions upon which he based his actions.
Natural Premises is well-written and will be valuable for both historians and readers interested. in environmental issues. This is the author's second major work; his first book, Region and Empire: Panjab in the Seventeenth Century, traced the evolution of society and economy in Panjab during the 17th century. Perhaps his next book will bring the story of the Western Himalayan region up to present.
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