The Indian Economic |
and Social History Review
Volume XXXVI Number 4 October-December September 1999
JAMES H. MILLS/ Re-forming the Indian: Treatment regimes in the lunatic asylums of British India, 1857-1880, p. 407
KENNETH R. HALL/ Coinage, trade and economy in early South India and its Southeast Asian neighbours, p. 431
MRINALINI SINHA/ Suffragism and internationalism: The enfranchisement of British and Indian women under an imperial state, p. 461
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Webbed by Philip McEldowney
490 / The Indian Economic and Social History Review 36, 4 (1999)
CHRISTOPHER V. HILL, River of Sorrow: Environment and Social Control in Riparian North India, 1770-1994, Association For Asian Studies, Michigan, 1997, pp. 200.
Christopher Hill confesses that among the many great rivers which had a profound influence on his life, he chose to devote this book to the understanding and the analysis of the Kosi river in the Purnia district of north Bihar. With Kosi diara as the case study, the author attempts to study not only the peculiarities of the Kosi river but also juxtaposes it with colonial discourse and orientalism to study the impact of the colonial policies on the region.
The Kosi river had been known for its vagaries since at least the sixteenth century. In the distant past, and in fact till recent times, it has changed its course frequently, devastating the area that came under its sway. The Mughal Emperor, Akbar, had pioneered attempts to control it by a system of bandhs or embankments. His efforts, however, were not very successful. Ruins of Bir Bandit, constructed during the Mughal period were discovered in the nineteenth century. The government of the East India Company continued the endeavours to tame the river. They understood that the only alternative was to dam the river at its source. This, however, required an agreement between India and Nepal, which could not be reached between the two countries during the Company's regime. In the 1790's, the Company had also initiated a process to reclaim the region by hiring the services of invalid soldiers
Book Reviews / 491
who had been injured in military service. By 1799, however, following the repossession. of the lands by the Collector in lieu of revenue payments, these invalid soldiers were dispossessed of their lands. On all occasions, Hill argues, the Company had to succumb to the limitations imposed by the unique environment of the river. It was only in 1955, in post-independence India under Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, that the Kosi was harnessed with the construction of a barrage. Since then, the river has been channelled by a series of canals, providing plenty of irrigation patterns throughout north- east Bihar. While this calmed the Kosi and stopped its channel-hopping, it failed to tame the river. In October 1984, the Kosi once again breached its eastern embankments, thus inundating villages, washing away crops and rendering many homeless.
These strange geographic-ecological characteristics of the Kosi river had earned it the epithet `River of Sorrow'. And, such was the effect of Kosi on the district of Purnia that even the district stood discredited. This is evident from the saying: Na zahar khao, Na mahar khao, marna hai, to Purnia jao (Don't eat poison, don't take venom, if you wish to die, go to Purnia). These eccentricities and unique characteristics of the Kosi river have been discussed with great intensity and depth by Hill. The details are interesting and the narrative useful, but it sometimes gets so overwhelming that the argument is lost.
The density of data, notwithstanding, Hill makes a few noteworthy and valuable generalisations. He argues that although several historical works have studied the socioeconomic implications of colonialism and have focused on the `imperial subjugation' felt by the people, they have completely ignored the idea that the implicit fact of colonial ideology was the subordination and transformation of the Indian environment. Imperial domination, Hill argues; was so multi-faceted that ecological and societal controls were inseparable. Through this study, he focuses on the impact of colonial ideology on the landscape. Hill insists that it would amount to a violation of the notions of history if a historian separates society and politics from the environment. He argues that throughout the colonial period, social, political and ecological consequences were unalterably interwined. Moreover, the commodification, commercialisation and taming of nature were explicitly evident in colonial social control and revenue administration. Hill is critical of the `peculiar optimism' of the colonial government in controlling the environment and intending to transform and manage the terrain of which they had little knowledge.
It is in this context that the author discusses the importance of local knowledge and of local informants on whom the Company depended very largely for the formulation of its ideas and knowledge. Understanding, regulating and adapting to indigenous customs and local knowledge, the Company often reinvented and reformulated traditions and patterns. In their urge to be better controllers and managers, and to replace the native officials, Company officials perceived local institutions very differently, alienating the local people and leading to turmoil and unrest. All this was visible in Kosi. The author tells us that not only did the peasants feel oppressed by the Company's revenue policies but also the government
492 / The Indian Economic and Social History Review 36, 4 (1999)
could not address itself to the needs and concerns of the Santal migrants and failed to acknowledge the distinct character of the region. The colonial attempts, Hill argues, have left behind a violent legacy in the Kosi diara which is manifest even today.
The book covers a vast period--1770 to 1994--although the details and the narrative are confined largely to the rule of East India Company. Information and comparisons with the period immediately following independence and contemporary times would have added to the value of the book. Nonetheless, the book should interest ecologists, economic historians and scholars who study the transition period and the expansion of Company power.
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Webbed by Philip McEldowney