River Valleys, Hill States and Colonial Rule
Dhirendra Datt Dangwal
BECOMING INDIA: WESTERN HIMALAYAS UNDER BRITISH RULE by Aniket Alam Foundation Books, Cambridge University Press India, 2008, 344 pp., 750
September 2008, volume 32, No 9

After being neglected for many years the Himalayan region has got much attention from historians in the last two decades. Becoming India by Aniket Alam is a welcome addition to the growing corpus of works. Alam is of the view that the colonial encounter in this region cannot be understood ‘as merely a sub-set of the larger story of how India coped with colonialism’ (p. 299). To Aniket the Western Himalayas, along with other mountainous, desert, hilly and forested zones, represents a border region and ‘lay outside the civilizational centres of the flood plains’. The economic and political histories of these regions ‘were marked by high levels of autonomy’. These regions in a true sense became part of India only under colonial rule. The border zones ‘cannot be seen as historically derivative of their neighbouring caste-agricultural regions but must be studied from historically independent position’ (p. 301).

Starting with these ideas the author examines socio-political specificities of the Western Himalayas. He thinks that in the Himalaya, river valleys were primary units around which were built social and political organizations, hence he chose a part of the Sutlej valley (middle part) in the Himachal Pradesh for his study. During the colonial period this area contained many small princely states, known as Thakurais. The British constituted them into a single group called the Shimla Hill States. Some of these were really very small and as Alam argues were not states in a true sense. He skillfully explores the pre-colonial polities of these states. The central argument of the book is that the economy of the region failed to generate enough surplus and this along with the strong presence of the clans hindered the emergence of a state. These polities however were thoroughly transformed under the colonial rule. The book analyses this process of transformation and its consequences.

While underlining the role of geography in shaping the society in the Western Himalayas Alam treats river valleys as ‘distinct regions in themselves’, with little communication across the valleys. His contention that physical features were ‘insurmountable barrier both for economic and political consolidation’ (p. 306) seems an exaggeration however. In the Himalayas we do have examples of social and political organizations encompassing several valleys.

Analysing the economy of the region Alam argues that agriculture alone could not sustain the population in the Western Himalayas, hence people had to rely also on pastoralism, foraging, trade, etc. Considerable trade between India and Tibet passed through the Sutlej valley, but Alam argues that the area of his study remained ‘almost totally unconnected’ with this (p. 56). Though he is not commenting on the trans-Himalayan regions of the valley, this observation is still surprising. In almost all Himalayan regions people directly or indirectly participated in this trade, even if their total contribution in the trade might have been negligible. In Uttarakhand the Bhotiyas, who largely carried out this trade, were inhabitants of the upper river valleys. Similarly the Sherpas of Nepal were extensively engaged in trans-Himalayan trade.

The author argues that since economic resources were not sufficient to sustain the population social practices were attuned to the maintenance of a low population. But there are no population figures until the late nineteenth century. In Uttarakhand the population grew considerably in the nineteenth century, particularly in the second half. And this resulted in rapid expansion of cultivated area. Increased expansion of agriculture and horticulture in Himachal Pradesh after independence also shows that possibilities of increasing cultivation did exist, but perhaps the low population prevented it.

The ‘transition from foraging and gathering or pastoralism to agriculture’ while complete in the plains, remained ‘stunted in the Western Himalaya and, in a sense froze in time.’ (p. 306). Hence the economy could not generate the surplus that could have been appropriated by the state, which therefore remained weak. In this evolutionary scheme transition is inevitable. But in reality various means of economic sustenance have historically coexisted in many places down to the last two centuries. This raises the question about the predictability of such transition. Further, his assumption that the state could not emerge in the absence of this transition is equally problematic particularly when we know well that the Mongol Empire, and many other central Asian empires grew in areas known more for nomadic pastoralism than agriculture.

Since there was little that the state could have appropriated, the focus was on claiming labour. This was unpaid labour known as ‘begar’. Alam rightly contends that it ‘is therefore proper to study it as a form of surplus extraction and revenue collection rather than merely as a form of labour’ (p. 75). The state appropriated most of the surplus in kind, that largely constituted of perishable items which ‘had to be consumed within a relatively short historical time’. This along with direct labour ‘imposed severe constraints on the possibilities of accumulation’ (p. 78). Lack of monetization of the economy also contributed to this.

The clan-based polity was also a hindrance in state emergence. The Khash-Kanet peasantry formed a majority of the population and the hill state considerably depended on them for support. The Khash tribe was supposed to have arrived in these mountains with the Aryans and subdued the Naga tribes (now identified with the low caste Kolis) who since then ‘serve’ the Khash as agricultural labourers. A small minority claim descent from the high caste immigrants from the plains and they constitute ruling class and priests. The Khash, who were also known as the Kanets, were mainly agriculturists and were organized in clans, which was ‘essentially a patrilineal exogamous kin group’; clans were organized in a large unit called brotherhood (bhaichara) that spread over a large area. Two organizing principles of the clan of the Western Himalaya were lineage and territory. Often a village constituted of one or two lineages. No clan ‘extended beyond a handful of villages’ (p. 87) and this constituted the area of clan and its deity. The basic unit of clan and the sub-clan was the polyandrous family. According to Alam while some scholars believe in the widespread existence of ‘fraternal polyandry’ in the past in this region, others suggest that it was limited to a few pockets.

The author shows that there were two forms of political authorities in the Sutlej valley, ‘one based on the control of territory and other based on control of filiative communities or lineages. These existed parallel to each other and many of their functions and powers overlapped, leading to frequent struggles over political supremacy’ (p. 60). The clan deity had considerable control over the peasants. ‘It had a say in most matters of public and personal concern to the members of clan and exercised this say regularly. The will of the deity was expressed through the medium of its oracle or Goor’ (p. 60).

Another important source of power within the clan was the Khumri that was constituted of in most cases the head of the families (the eldest male) within the clan. Its head mediated with the state on behalf of the community. ‘The khumri decided on various day to day matters of the community, specially those dealing with the revenue demands of the Hill Sate’ (p. 61). It apportioned the demand for revenue and begar among the member households. It also decided matters relating to use of common resources. The authority of the Khumri was ‘subject to that deity who was the heavenly ruler of the clan’ (p. 62). Such a powerful position of the clan deity had implications for the nature of the state. The king emerged but could not overcome the powerful influence of the deity. Hence often rulers were vice-regents of powerful deities. Alam suggests that this relationship between the king and the people was thoroughly transformed with the arrival of the British in this region in 1815 after the Anglo-Gurkha war. After defeating the Gurkhas the British restored many kingdoms to their erstwhile rulers, while some were incorporated into the British Empire. Interestingly even the Thakurais, which were very small in size, were treated as sovereign states. While doing so ‘the British did not realise that the question of political pre-eminence was far from settled in most parts of the Western Himalaya’ (p. 118). The British forced princely states to introduce many changes in their administration. Overlooking the intricacies of land relations the king was declared owner of land and forests. Land revenue was to be collected in cash. These changes made the king economically more powerful and above all he no longer had to depend on the clans and village community for survival, as he got the British backing. Hence the traditional relationship between the ruler and the peasantry was ruptured and Dumh (the traditional form of protest) lost its significance. The clan deity could not mediate between the king and peasant in the new situation, and hence its role was more and more confined to win the supreme devotion of its followers. New economic opportunities created by British rule in these hills, particularly a market for agricultural produces and labour, and government jobs under the British, undermined the authority of the rulers in the princely states. As the communication between the king and peasantry broke down rebellions became common. Alam argues, ‘Every rebellion was directed formally against the authority of the local ruler or his administration but substantially went against the very basic feature of colonial rule in the Western Himalayas’ (p. 148). He analyses rebellions in some of the states that took place in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century in chapter 4. While the British initially treated the protests with sympathy, later they helped the rulers in ruthlessly suppressing them.

The protests became widespread in the twentieth century. In place of traditional Kanet peasant leadership, now an educated middle class was leading the protest movements. These agitations were now more systematic and aligned themselves to the Praja Mandal movements across the country and also had connections with the All India State People’s Conference. Alam analyses the factional politics of Praja Mandal in chapter 6. There was intense struggle to control the Praja Mandals in the 1940s, as it was evident that India would shortly become independent. These movements intensified in 1947-48 and finally paved the way for the formation of Himachal Pradesh in the Indian Union. The colonial rule also significantly impinged on social practices. Alam argues that since many social practices of the people in the hills were not compatible with Hindu orthodox practices social reform movements sought to change them. One reason for this was the opening up of the region to outsiders. After the declaration of Shimla as the official summer capital of the empire in 1865 a large number of people from outside the hills arrived. Local people increasingly came in touch with them. Some organizations like the Himalaya Vidiya Parbandhani Sabha, which had newly educated hillmen as its members effectively propagated social reforms. The Hindu Sabha, which had a loose connection with the Hindu Mahasabha, also worked for reform. These organizations became active in the 1920s. They propagated marriage reform, and opposed polyandry, widow remarriage, bride price, and system like ‘reet’ (money paid to parents of divorced women for marrying). Slowly the Kanet peasantry adopted several orthodox Hindu practices.

While the book significantly improves our understanding of the socio-political system of the Sutlej valley in Himachal, the problem arises when its findings are generalized for the entire Western Himalaya, that the author claims extends from Kashmir to the border of Nepal (p. 3). To be precise, these generalizations were not applicable even for the entire Himachal Pradesh. A strong clan polity, a weak state, absence of normal caste hierarchies, an alien family system, and weak connections with the ‘centres of Indian civilization’ were, perhaps, to some extent, features of the middle Satluj valley, but were least applicable to other Himalayan regions. Many kingdoms in Himachal, like Chamba, Mandi, Kangra, Suket, Bilaspur, represented a strong state. In present day Uttarakhand there were two strong kingdoms, Kumaon and Garhwal, extending over a considerable territory in the pre-colonial period. Even the truncated Garhwal kingdom (better known as Tehri) during the colonial period, was not confined to the region between the Yamuna and the Tons valleys, as the author assumes (p. 125), but contained the entire area between the Alaknanda and the Tons and hence included the Bhagirathi (Ganga) and the Bhilangana valleys as well. Similarly in the context of the relationship Alam draws between the river valley and state formation we cannot overlook a powerful state in 18th century Nepal, which for 25 years controlled Kumaon from Kathmandu and at its height extended up to Kangra, bordering the Sikh state.

Alam’s attempt at dichotomizing cultures of the river valleys and the borderlands is also problematic. There is little substance in treating the Western Himalaya as distinct from ‘civilization and empires of North India’. The Himalaya cannot be seen at the margin of the Indian civilization. Absence of the strict observance of the caste system and certain marriage and family forms in certain pockets in the past are not evidence enough to see the Himalaya as distinct from the centre of civilization in North India. The Himalayan region was always culturally closely connected to the North Indian plains. Hindu pilgrims always visited Badrinath, Kedarnath, Gangotri, and Yamunotri in the Himalaya. Haridwar, which is a holy town for Hindus, was historically either part of Garhwal kingdom or bordered it. Shankracharya was supposed to have visited the Himalaya to set up a math at Badrinath. Further, the whole territory is full of Hindu temples, built in ‘nagara’ and occasionally ‘dravidian’ styles of architecture. How can one argue that this region was on the margin or outside the main centers of Hindu civilization?

Similarly the argument that the caste system of the Himalaya is completely different from the north Indias plains is difficult to sustain. The presence of the varna system, the observance of their strict hierarchy was a feature a very few areas. We know that in India every region is/was dominated by one or two castes. Often in the peasant caste dominated areas the brahamins and the kshatriyas are/were not influential. The Sutlej valley can thus be taken as an area dominated by the Khash-Kanet peasantry. Clear varna and caste hierarchy, as sought in classical texts, is generally an exception than a rule. And what exists in reality in most parts of the country is often treated as deviation. Hence it is difficult to agree that caste is an ‘alien’ sociological concept to be deployed to understand social formation in the Western Himalaya (p. 303).

Alam’s stand that the impact of the British rule in the Western Himalaya was ‘non-cataclysmic’ is equally controversial because many scholars have demonstrated that the Himalayan region saw environmental devastation’ during the colonial period. Trees were felled extensively for marketing timber, while the local peasantry was deprived of their traditional rights in forests. This completely transformed the subsistence economy of many Himalayan communities. Alam without closely examining these arguments concludes that they are ‘overstated’ (p. 308). His neglect of environmental aspects is strange particularly because his book has been published under the series ‘Culture and Environment of South Asia’.

The production quality of the book is good. However, there is neither the list of tables, nor abbreviations. Footnotes also do not follow a uniform standard pattern. More maps would have helped readers to understand the intricacies of the geography of the area of study. There are some minor typos like on page 242 footnote number 50 appears twice in the text.

Notwithstanding these caveats the book is a significant contribution in the field of Himalayan studies. Aniket excellently brings out the interconnectedness of political, social and economic issues. Such a holistic historical approach is welcome in the era of fragmentation. The book is very useful to historians, sociologists and anthropologists, and particularly for those interested in the Himalayan region.

Dhirendra Datt Dangwal is Assistant Professor in the Department of History, Himachal Pradesh University, Shimla. He is the author of Himalayan Degradation: Colonial Forestry and Environmental Change in India (forthcoming). 

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