Clemens Dutt

Book Review

Indian Peasant Through Official Spectacles

Source: Labour Monthly, Vol. 8, August 1926, No. 8, pp. 510-512, (1,263 words)
Transcription: Ted Crawford
HTML Markup: Brian Reid
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The Punjab Peasant in Prosperity and Debt.
By Malcolm Lyall Darling, I.C.S.
(Oxford University Press, 1925.)

The peasant question in India, the problems bound up with the economic exploitation of the millions of agricultural workers and peasants that form the majority of the population of Great Britain’s most profitable colony, will be of decisive importance in the near future. As in Russia, so in India, the last word will rest with the peasants. Naturally, therefore, one turns eagerly to the voluminous literature of British rule in India to learn something of the life of the peasant, of his economic position and social and political aspirations and of the trend of development during the last half century.

The result is a scanty harvest, but an illuminating revelation of British interests in India. The peasant practically does not come into the picture at all. Land revenue, famine, the economics of agriculture and the procedure of administration form the chief concerns of British officialdom, only a minute handful of books and most of fairly recent date, like Dr. Mann’s study of life and labour in a Deccan village, are devoted to the questions we have mentioned. Among these the book here under review will rank as one of the foremost.

Superficially the book is extremely attractive. Though primarily a study of agricultural debt, it deals also with the life of the peasant. It has been compiled with great thoroughness in the collection of data. At the same time it is written in a very attractive style, and it is full of sidelights on village life. As the ex-Governor of the Punjab remarks in the preface, the Punjab peasant is a “fascinating subject.”

Closer examination, however, reveals the limitations of even the most enlightened of bureaucrats. The Government official cannot transcend the limits of officialdom. Even the view of the peasant is from the outside and the description of the different races savours of the painstaking catalogue of a natural historian faced with new genera and species. What the peasant thinks is clearly not evidence, and it would never be guessed from this book that the Amritsar massacre took place in the Punjab, or that the Punjab was the centre of the Akali movement and of political and religious upheaval. There are actually two mentions of the Akali movement, one of which is interesting as suggesting its economic basis, the other referring to it as a “political danger of prosperity.”

As a matter of fact in its main thesis the book can only be condemned as worthless and a typical example of either unconscious or deeply designed Government propaganda. The central thesis is to exhibit the blessings of British government, and to prove that improvidence and debt is the cause of Indian poverty and not landlordism or Government exploitation.

This attitude is expressed with all the benevolent insolence of the official. Thus we read:—

As in the Sungli villages, there was not a word of gratitude to Government. On the contrary, “Look how Government has scored,” they said, “the district used to pay one lakh of land revenue and now it pays a score.” . . . The attitude is characteristic of the times and recalls the age at which the adolescent boy is tempted to deny all obligation to his parents.

A prominent part of the book is taken up with fervent praise of the benefits introduced by the Government canal irrigation schemes which have been the basis for the development of the three “canal colonies.” The author has to admit, however, that “there was nothing new in the idea of irrigation by canal. The Mughals had done it in the Southern Punjab 300 years before.” Still he delights to draw the contrast between the West Punjab, where “life is the immemorial life of India, primitive, isolated and fatalistic,” and the canal colonies where:—

it is the new life brought in by the Pax Britannica, prosperous, progressive and modern.

Some explanation of this admiration may be found in the following statement:—

In 1921-22, a normal year, a net profit of Rs. 169 lakhs or over, 1,000,000 was made by Government upon the canals serving the three major colonies and representing a dividend of 22 per cent. upon the capital outlay. (p.131.)

It is not unwarrantable to see in this also an explanation of the exaggerated importance ascribed to debt. The idea of the British Government is to capture the peasant from the clutches of the moneylender so that its own exploitation may be more efficiently conducted. Mr. Darling’s especial “guru” is Malthus, and he quotes him with relish from beginning to end of the book. In one place, in a footnote, he himself admits that:—

Since 1868 population has increased by 22 per cent. and cultivation by 50 per cent. (p.232.)

Yet, true to officialdom, he never ceases to stress that over-population is the cause of Indian poverty. He quotes Malthus’ words and declares, “the root cause of India’s poverty could hardly be better expressed.” He says, again:—

In spite of want population multiplies. In Europe we may talk of the survival of the fittest (though modern legislation is doing its best to prove it a lie), but in India it is time to speak of the survival of the least unfit. And so we arrive at the secret of India’s poverty, over-population, improvidence and disease.

In his preface his admission of the role of Government apologist is equally clear. “If this book establishes anything,” he says, “it is that such poverty as exists in the Punjab has little to do with the activities of Government.” Hence a summary rejection of the idea that any part is played by the burden of land revenue (which, by the way, amounts to 47 million rupees per annum from a population of 20 millions, a higher amount per head than in any other province where the Zamindari system of land tenure prevails. Bengal with more than twice the population pays only 29 million rupees in land revenue). Hence also entire neglect of any study of landlordism and complete concentration on the evils of borrowing. It rather suggests going into a slum area in Great Britain and ascribing the poverty of the people to their visits to the pawnbroker. It may not be out of place to notice also that the peasants are mainly Muslims, while the moneylenders are Hindus, and to foment this difference while diverting attention from the landlords and the Government would not be against the traditions of British rule.

One cannot escape the conclusion that even the eulogy of co-operation is a piece with the rest of the book. The Government co-operative banks are being run with the best of philanthropic intentions, like all the actions of the British Government in India, but here again the motive behind is exploitation of the prosperous Punjab for the benefit of the Government instead of the moneylender. Further, the Punjab is a valuable reservoir of men for the Indian army and of food materials for abroad and hence the wish to see it scientifically developed. It only remains to add one little sidelight on agricultural wages.

In the Western Punjab we saw that Rs. 5 a month was all that a man could expect. Here, and in the colony generally, he gets twice that amount and good clothing as well. (p.159.)

Five rupees is less than seven and sixpence. What a vista of super-profits would be opened up if only all India could be cultivated by thrifty agricultural labourers hired at 15s. a month!