Hira Singh, Colonial Hegemony and Popular Resistance: Princes, Peasants, and Paramount Power. New Delhi: Sage Publications India Pvt. Ltd., 1998. Pp. 274.
Dr. Hira Singh is an academic grappler who enjoys pinning unwary and unseasoned fellow scholars down. This feat of his constitutes the principal attraction of his pugnacious little tome composed in a racy, often rancorous, but at times eminently readable style. Colonial Hegemony and Popular Resistance presents a case study from Rajasthan in the 1920s, foregrounding the active struggle of the kisans [peasants] in “the dynamics of colonial dominance and its dissolution with particular reference to British colonial rule in India.” The book’s theoretical framework is a spirited critique of the political economy theory of the West postulating the centrality of colonial capitalism as the solvent of all pre-capitalist political and economic structures in the colonies. This Western presupposition is predicated on an Eurocentric premise that modern colonial societies were constructed on the debris of their indigenous feudal foundations, that feudalism was backward-looking and capitalism progressive, in that it served as the motor of modernization.
The author argues that the institutions of caste and class as well as the social relations of British India (that have been simplified and homogenized by the Western theories) militate against any convenient comparison between the pre-British polities of princely India and the colonial state created by the Company raj. Singh’s carefully researched study also challenges the postcolonial subaltern historiography which, despite a radically different emphasis, shares “the assumption that the agency of doing or not doing anything in India (say, promoting feudalism or non-feudalism) rested exclusively with European political economy.” He seeks to show that European political economy and postcolonial Indian society and culture “both affected and modified each other.” The book’s third and fourth chapters discuss the situation and struggle of the kisans in princely and colonial India documenting their oliticization that transformed their movement from the elemental and chaotic jacqueries (as in late medieval and early modern Europe) into a struggle for their rights.
However, the author’s claim that the relationships between the kisans and the thikanedars (landlords) vis-à-vis the darbar (provincial landlords) were not feudal in the Western sense remains tobe proved. In fact his findings demonstrate the decentralized and quasi-autonomous existence of the thikanedars vis-à-vis the darbar (much like the relationships between the noble overlords and the upper and lower gentry) and the oppressive life of the kisans. The thikanedars as the recipient of inam (gift or grant of land) from the darbar were the latter’s tenants-in-chief (a very feudal relation) owing multiple feudal obligations, including military service, to the darbar. They were responsible for the maintenance of law and order in their territories though often, like some gentlemen or yeomen farmers of medieval England (of whom the legendary Robin Hood was the greatest exemplar), the thikanedars joined hands with the local rowdies as partersd in crime through the institution of kinship. The peasants’ obligations to their landlords were strikingly similar to those of their European counterparts. Hence Singh’s remarks that “unlike Medieval Europe, there was no labour-rent in the princely state of Rajasthan” and that “the kisans paid their rents to the darbar and the thikanedars either in kind…known as hasil or in cash known as bigori” are untenable. What were hasil and bigori (probably, more correctly, begari) if not labour rent? Rent in kind was a regular feature of medieval European life before the onset of money economy.
Finally, this useful study suffers from two oversights. On page 23 the author has Alfred Lyall, writing in 1907, take “strong exception” to the views of James Tod whose work was published 13 years later! Then, on page 27, Nicholas Dirks’ “Foucauldian discourse” is referred to without explaining how Dirks used the works of Michel Foucault. Nevertheless, Dr. Singh’s book makes interesting and informative reading, a few minor slips notwithstanding.