Professor Jan Breman’s academic engagements with labour relations in India are well-known. It started with his field work in two villages, in the early 1960s, in Surat district of South Gujarat. The focal concern of this study was to map and analyse the changing relations between landless labourers and their employers; in particular, the gradual disappearance of the traditional labour bondage in the region, epitomized in the hali system, and its replacement by relatively greater mobility and freedom for the workers at the bottom of the rural order, constituted the core of this research. The results were published in the well-known and oft-quoted book: Patronage and Exploitation: Changing Agrarian Relations in South Gujarat. For the past half century, Professor Breman has returned to South Gujarat, again and again, to the sites of his initial field work, as well as to some other villages and localities and has continued to monitor, with remarkable commitment, the crucial changes in labour relations and the socio-economic conditions of rural labourers or what he often prefers to call the ‘rural underclass’.
Through several important publications, he has enriched our understanding of the dynamics of accumulation and exploitation, in his study region, since independence. He has repeatedly drawn attention to the fact that the existence at the lowest rungs of the rural economy, inspite of modest improvements in the material quality of lives, have remained extremely harsh during the post inde-pendence period as well, and the fulfillment of the most of the basic needs continues to be a luxury. His analytical accounts of the vulnerability of these hapless incessant toilers, their resilience and coping strategies, and their att-empts to escape the confinement at the bottom of the rural economy are easily among the best and most insightful in the relevant literature.
The present volume is best seen as a companion volume to the larger body of Breman’s studies on the rural underclass of South Gujarat since independence. It is a historical account of the origins and structure of bonded labour, and its gradual disappearance, in the study region. Four out of the five chapters in the book, provide a well-researched social, political and economic story of the genesis and evolution of the hali system. The author suggests that from the days of an ‘extremely thin and fragile administrative apparatus’ (p. 8) of the Mughal empire, through the subsequent power struggles between the British and the Gaekwad upto the end of the 18th century, a group of Anavil Brahmans emerged as ‘an elite of desais (literally ‘lord of the land’)’ (p. 8) who fulfilled the function of local chieftains, and played a critical role in the domestication of the Dublas to a state of servitude and bondage, or as halis. In all likelihood, prior to their domestication as bonded agricultural labourers and all-purpose menial servants, Dublas were nomadic clans who made a living as shifting cultivators, but the expansion of the settled agriculture in this ‘frontier’ region put an end to their tribal way of life. With the consolidation of the British administration in the countryside of South Gujarat, from the beginning of the nineteenth century, in particular after the introduction of the Ryotwari system, the Anavil desais gradually lost the power and authority in the local economy, and the power-structure at the village level tended to become more heterogeneous as other high and middle caste Hindu landowners jockeyed for it. However, the British colonial policies did not lead to any let up on the liveli-hood pressures for the tribal communities. On the contrary, aggressive sedentarization of the shifting cultivators in the forested hinterland in the region was strongly encouraged and the tribals were subjected to the colonial tax regime and a host of other policies, whose end-result, often, was loss of their meagre means of existence. For instance, the colonial adminis-tration’s ban on the tribals from distilling their own liquor, either from the fermented sap of palm tree or from the flowers of the mahuwa tree, pushed them deeper in debt. Typically, those at the bottom of the heap among the tribals, lacking means to provide for their own livelihood, such as the Dublas, often ended up in forms of servitude which lasted for their whole lives and frequently continued into their future generations.
After mapping the genesis of the hali system, Breman examines the dialectics between bondage and patronage through the colonial period, locating it in the larger unfolding drama around agrarian question, and the ways it got enmeshed in the struggle for national independence. It is a fine-combed, richly-textured analysis, that draws on a variety of sources, some of which have been used for the first time, and is eminently rewarding. Obviously, it is not possible to get into a discussion of the author’s findings and arguments in any detail here but let me highlight his conclusion relevant to one of key concerns in the author’s project, namely the prospects for the emancipation of the halis in the context of the struggle for independence from the colonial rute. In particular, he tracks the vicissitudes of the radical agitations by, and on behalf of, the rural underclass and their relationship with the Congress Party. It is suggested that in Gujarat ‘the Congress machine had for many years been operated and controlled by Sarder Patel’ who was vehemently opposed to radical initiatives, as was much of the national leadership in other parts of the country. Thus, inspite of a few notable initiatives here and there, progressive movements could not achieve much as they were swamped by the conservative leadership that dominated the Congress Party. True, the Congress leadership gave into the demand for recognizing the hali system as illegal and Sardar Patel, in the presence of Mahatma Gandhi, announced the formal end of the hali pratha system on 26 January 1939 in Bardoli, after a series of lengthy consultations between dominant landowners and the representatives of landless labourers. Infact, in this day, Mahatma Gandhi also gave the Dublas halis a new name, Halpatis (i.e. lords o the plough), which was meant to signify dignity of their labour. Unfortunately, however, the ground realities did not change in any substantive manner for the betterment of the workers. As Breman puts it: ‘What did the radical agitation under the late-colonial regime achieve? For the landless class relegated to the bottom of the agrarian order, not very much. Although the mass of landless labourers slowly became more visible, their problems and interests were consistently played down in the nationalist repertoire. Even unions committed to a militant agrarian policy rarely mobilized the landless, and when they did so it was on an adhoc basis rather than systematically. The political terrain won by the Kishan Sabha towards the end of the 1930s was eroded again in the years that followed. This conclusion might not apply in some other parts of the country, but I believe it was certainly the case in South Gujarat’ (p. 155).
Thus, the Congress Party was not quite willing to go the distance to challenge the evil of bondage in any effective manner. Furthermore, and in my judgement it is a very powerful argument that Breman makes, this inability was inextricably linked to the Congress Party’s relative failure to confront the agrarian question, in particular its land reforms component, in a manner that could have provided a substantive boost to the emancipatory processes for those at the bottom of the rural society. As is well-known, this failure continued to haunt the party after Independence; this theme constitutes the core of the last chapter of the book. It may be useful to quote Breman’s conclusion in this regard: ‘This review of the land reforms in post-colonial India leads me to conclude that they were designed and implemented in such a way that social classes like the Halpatis were systematically denied access to agrarian landownership’ (p. 167).
To my mind inadequate attention to the land question happens to be among the gravest failures of the post-colonial state in India. Sure enough, bondage of the old kind, such as the hali system, has gradually disintegrated after independence but a back-breaking poverty continues to be pervasive at the lower rungs in large parts of rural India. Lack of access to land for these workers, typically, also has meant their inability to acquire intangible assets, such as education and marketable skills, keeping them subjugated to extremely fragile economic conditions. Sure enough, extension of the labour market has increased the mobility of the rural landless and they scrounge for jobs and livelihoods far and wide, which itself may be considered a positive development as they get released from the captivity of the village boundaries. It is also evident that a fortunate few have managed to extricate themselves from the trap of grinding poverty. Also, it is obviously not the case that the vast majority has not seen any improvement in their material well-being.
Nonetheless, it would be a fare judgement to go along with Breman’s conclusion that the overwhelming majority of asset-less labourers continue to be in a state of acute destitution, inspite of marginal improvements, and haven’t benefited much from the plethora of government schemes and programmes even after more than half a century of independence. One of the primary, if not the most important, reason for such a state of affairs is what may be the ‘original sin’ mentioned at the beginning of this paragraph, which excluded the rural underclass from the prospects of development.
Even though the study is based largely on South Gujarat, many of Breman’s findings are relevant well beyond his study region, to other parts of India as well as South Asia. The issues such as the dynamics of accumulation patterns, the nature of state intervention, class formation and class action, the initiatives of the socalled ‘civil society’ actors, and the roles of all these in changing labour relations in South Gujarat—all these are analysed with great finesse by Jan Breman. In the process, a number of important analytical debates relating to the world of rural proletariat and proto-proletariat get illuminated with obvious relevance for many regions in the developing world.
By way of a concluding remark I would only say that here is a volume that should be amply rewarding to all these interested in issues Breman has been engaged with for more than half-a-century. It is a work of highest intellectual quality, and equally importantly, full of empathy for a large segment of India’s population who continue to be on the margins of official concerns and policies, even more so in the times of globalization.
Praveen Jha is at the Centre for Economic Studies and Planning, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.