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Response to Review no. 1083

It is gratifying to see Professor Peter Robb’s review of The Bengal Delta. Ecology, State and Social Change, 1840-1943 in Reviews in History. He provides a detailed, chapter-by-chapter commentary with important observations, with which I have little to disagree. This response is intended to situate Professor Robb’s comments within the broader thesis of the book.

Professor Robb has rightly pointed out that ecology is the ‘strongest continuing theme’ of the book. Indeed its central focus is ecology, which also provides the book’s ‘contexts and connections’. Yet, I would suggest that it is more than an ecological history of the Bengal Delta (East Bengal / plain land Bangladesh more specifically): its broader objective is to understand the shifts, within the period of a century, from relative economic and social vibrancy (chapters two, three and four) to the acute lack of wellbeing, including poverty, famine, disease and social unrest (chapters five, six, seven, eight). I have adopted an ecological and political-ecological perspective to understand this shift.

In connection to the argument of the relative social and economic dynamics in deltaic Bengal, the book identifies certain contributing factors, including abundant crop production, profitable commercialization of agriculture for both Indian and global market, proper nutrition intake, people’s purchasing power, as well as peasant’s relative independence and collective assertion against the injustice of the various agents of the colonial administration. These were made possible by ecological factors such as a free-flowing water regime, availability of and entitlement to land from reclaimed chars (alluvial forms) and forests (mostly the Sundarbans), fertility of land, direct access to market and collective bargaining capacity for fair rent and other legal facilities. A policy issue that relates to these debates is if there was an ‘anomaly’ or exception in government’s standard revenue and land management. In East Bengal this largely took the form of deviance from the Permanent Settlement. I am glad to see that Professor Robb agrees with the general tenor of my argument, and welcome his quest for further nuances.

Professor Robb’s assertion that some of the anomalies or exceptions were ‘towards permanence’ needs careful consideration. The East Bengal landscape continued to be fluid at the turn of the 20th century, suggesting the continuance of relative anomalous conditions. The small-holding property ownership that emerged in the course of the 19th century continued to dominate the late colonial agrarian arrangement – but rather than coming under the permanent settlement, much of the small-holdings were alienated by non-agricultural social forces (chapter five). On either count, exceptions, including in the form of khas management, continued to be in place, either in favour or against the agrarian community. This is consistent with my argument elsewhere in the book that despite the post-colonial government’s self-acclaimed action of abolishing the Permanent Settlement, agrarian Bengal remained as problem-ridden as it was in the early 20th century, implying that there were issues other than the Permanent Settlement which led to agrarian decline in the region.

I agree with Professor Robb’s observation that I have not ‘always engaged fully with wider policy debates’. As he rightly suggests, a pro-landlord policy was never completely ‘periodically vanished’ (in fact I put the amount of land outside the strict administration of the Permanent Settlement at around 50 per cent of the total deltaic land of Eastern Bengal), but these policies didn’t translate into tangible reality in most cases. Anomaly in the sense of siding with the peasant at the expense of the zamindar was not ideologically/policy informed, but it was the ecologically-induced uncertainty that compelled the administration to do as they did. The Bengal Delta therefore mostly deals with the questions of policy as these were operationally frustrated, negotiated and complicated by the ecological regime of the region. As Jon Wilson’s Domination of Strangers (1)shows, the impossibility of policy at the ontological and practical level of the colonial administration was at work since its establishment in Bengal. Since I doubt that there were any coherent and universally implementable ‘policy’ in place, The Bengal Delta lacks the more positivist edges of works like that of Elizabeth Whitcombe or Metcalf, as mentioned in the review.

Professor Rob believes that my arguments about agrarian production and relative social wellbeing are blurred by the official sources that I have used. To reconstruct a picture of both physical and social wellbeing in the region, The Bengal Delta accommodates and critiques government reports, especially the Dufferin Report. The government reports are used not as much to describe East Bengal’s prosperity as to compare its conditions with that of other regions of Eastern India. However, the evidence of the delta’s relative prosperity and wellbeing has also been corroborated by rural vernacular puthis, in census reports and in reports published in British and Indian newspapers. References are also drawn from the writings of nationalist writers like R. C. Dutt, as other historians of Bengal have done, as well as from more recent econometric data provided by economic historians including Tirthankar Roy and William Collins.(2)

In the preamble to chapter four, the reference to the absence of the role of peasant power in Bankim Chandra Chatterjee’s forecasting of the bahubal or national strength makes Professor Robb feel that it was a ‘wrong assertion to refute’. Indeed, peasant resistance in Bengal had been going on since the 1770s, but it was not until the early 19th century that the peasants put up a long-term and rationally organized resistance through the Faraizis, who were much more successful in pressing home their demands than Fakir-Sanyasi and Titu Meer. The book also shows that the much-debated Indigo and Pabna resistances, two of the most successful 19th-century peasant movements, operated to a great extent within the Faraizi networks. But, though Bankim was writing at the height of the Faraizi movement, the Faraizis remained outside his vision of Bengali bahubal. To him, the peasant was an abstract category and not the agent of any specific power in the realm of the national – an issue that some subaltern historians have grappled with. It is surprising that the relationship between the 19th-century peasant resistance in Eastern Bengal and the genealogy of Bengali nationalism has not been seriously researched.

My assessment of the declining agrarian scenario in the region, in the two chapters on railway and water hyacinth (six and seven), made Professor Robb feel that he had ‘strayed into a landscape populated by Elizabeth Whitcombe’. Apart from the three important works by Professor Robb himself, which he has quoted in his review, Elizabeth Whitcombe’s celebrated book is not referred to in The Bengal Delta, an omission I much regret. I thank Professor Robb for reminding me of the value of these, to which I shall duly refer at the next opportunity. However, the omissions are less intentional than a consequence of the fact that I was trying to compare temporalities within the Bengal delta than spatialities across India, although occasional references have been made to all major regions. But for Whitcombe, thematically, the fact remains that she was writing about the problems of canal irrigation in 19th-century North India, which was never an issue for the region covered in The Bengal Delta. There is also a fundamental difference in the approach, as hinted at above. Whitcombe examined the unintended ecological consequences deriving from the government’s ‘plans’ for agrarian improvement. In Eastern Bengal there were no such plans in place – there could not be because of the abundance of water. If we consider the railways as a subject of such ‘plan’ in Bengal, it had the approval of the government, but were largely developed by private capitalists who had hardly any ‘plan’ for improvement of agriculture or public health – examples of such apathy are provided in The Bengal Delta. The complications arising out of the water hyacinth, which was not the subject of Whitcombe, were still less the result of a plan. Although working in different time-frames, Whitcombe and myself do agree on some aspects of the impact on agrarian production, yet the two chapters in The Bengal Delta referred to by Professor Robb are not simply an account of the impact of the railways and water hyacinth. These examine how different bureaucracies and different realms of science, ideas as well as private commercial interests imagined, constructed and represented the problems of modern technology or an alien water weed – such nuances being possible on the strength and multiplicity of environmental historical debates, which are being aired only more recently.

Beyond the empirical details specific to each chapter, The Bengal Delta aimed to connect with major historiographical debates on agrarian Bengal. Given the vast literature on the subject, this was not an easy task. An environmental perspective was helpful as it pointed to fresh materials and newer angles to understand shifts in economic, social and political arenas in the region for the period covered. Yet, one needs to be alert to the fact that, relative to other discipline, history is perhaps the least innovative, as its writing is constricted by the pious pain of evidence and has to build on earlier works. The Bengal Delta may or may not have accommodated some of these works, but it is up to the readers to judge if through these exercises, any new light has been shed on the countless literature on the changing agrarian conditions in the region. I am truly grateful to Professor Peter Robb for engaging my work in the spirit of a historian’s quest for such a light. I am also thankful to the editors of the Reviews in History for enabling us to interact in this exciting forum.

I am tempted to take the opportunity provided by the editors of the Reviews in History to amend to some errors, which Professor Robb has so kindly chosen to ignore. These are expected to be corrected in the forthcoming Indian edition of the book. 

There are cases of at least three misplaced referrals, requiring one to read ‘chapter four’ for ‘chapter five’ (p. 169: first line of second paragraph; p. 169: first line of third paragraph; p. 172: first line of last paragraph).

Another correction involves p. 170: last sentence of the first paragraph. The sentence at present runs: ‘By the early 1920s, of Bengal’s total land revenue, significantly more was coming from permanently settled areas’. In the correction we just need to add ‘non-‘ before ‘permanently settled areas’: ‘By the early 1920s, of Bengal’s total land revenue, significantly more was coming from non-permanently settled areas’.

Notes

  1. Jon Wilson, Domination of Strangers. Modern Governance in Eastern India (Basingstoke, 2008).Back to (1)
  2. Tirthankar Roy, ‘Globalization, factor prices and poverty in colonial India’, Australian Economic Review, 47, 1 (2007); William J. Collins, ‘Labor mobility, market integration, and wage convergence in late nineteenth–century India’, Explorations in Economic History, 36, 3 (1999).Back to (2)