Rediscovering India by Dharampal

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Interview Dharampal     

India Must Rediscover Itself – excerpts from an interview with Dharampalji by Dr G.S.R. Krishnan, published in Deccan Herald, March 1983.    

Friends the key points referred to in interview are – in 1937 there were villages in Tamil Nadu where land was vested in village community rather than individual ownership as elsewhere, agricultural productivity was app 1800 higher than that of Britain, Sutras & other lower caste formed 70% of students in Tamil speaking areas, drill plough was employed in South India, why Britain called Indians ignorant, caste system and why the British were against it, majority of Rajas were Sudras at the time of British entry and socio-economic backwardness may be taken as a post-1800 phenomenon in India. I

Krishna: Forgive me for asking a rather naïve question. Could you tell me how, and why you took a keen interest in the functioning of pre-British Indian society, especially of the late eighteenth century. I am asking this because, I understand, you are not an academic scholar/researcher by training or by profession.

Dharampal: This has to be explained in terms of my long association with the Association of Voluntary Agencies for Rural Development (AVARD). I was its Secretary from 1958 to 1964. AVARD was interested in studying the working of the panchayat raj system in our villages. Working with and for AVARD I came to realize that Indian society, by and large, functioned according to traditional idioms and beliefs and that I, like many other ‘outward-looking’ Indians, was not aware of the indigenous social system and its dynamics.

I shall give you a concrete instance of this. I visited a village in Rajasthan as a member of a team to study the working of the panchayat. We found that the panchayat had constructed a new building. When we went through the panchayat records and proceedings, there was no mention about the decision to construct a new building for the village panchayat. On inquiry, we were informed that the decision to construct a building was taken at what they called bees biswa panchayat (20 parts panchayat), an ‘unofficial’ panchayat along traditional lines which was more representative of the village than the statutory panchayat.

This was an interesting case of how the villagers perceived certain things and how they reacted to things from outside. It also showed how little we knew about our villages. I had similar experiences in Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu and other places. Between 1963-1965, we undertook a study of the working of the panchayat system in Tamil Nadu. I visited several districts of Tamil Nadu, talking to knowledge people and holding discussions with panchayat leaders. In Tanjore, I met the chairman of the local Bharat Sevak Samaj. He told me about the existence of over 100 samudayam villages in Tanjore area even around 1937. Samudayam villages are those in which while members had specific shares in the land of the village, the land, which and of them cultivated, was changed from time to time and the whole land vested in the village community. Such a change was based on the assumption that a certain alteration occurs in the fertility of all land from time to time which creates inequality among the members of the community and hence occasional redistribution was considered necessary.

When I went through the revenue records and other reports, I found that in the district of Tanjore around 30 per cent of the villages were classed as samudayam villages in 1807. The more I went into the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century records, the more I was convinced that the picture of Indian society that we all have is wrong. Someone had to go through the late eighteenth century British records and I thought I should begin and do whatever I can.

K: Let me ask a different question. Why was it easy for the British to subjugate this country? What factors in pre-British Indian society were responsible for it?
D: Let me make one thing clear. I really do not know much about the pre-British Indian society, its strength and weaknesses. My knowledge is only about the late eighteenth century India, that too gathered from British records and other sources. More data is needed before one can answer questions about pre-British Indian society. But I can say this much. Around 1700 there was a breakdown of the central authority of the Mughals in India. What followed was a period of great political resurgence. In many parts of India, local rulers-the rajas and princes-began asserting their rights. But this political resurgence was too slow and weak in relation to the imperial force of the British and other European powers, like the French. And when the British began step by step to conquer the country, these rulers were not able to unite and fight.

K: Was it that Indian feudalism could not withstand the attack from a nascent capitalist social organization….
D: I don’t know if we had feudalism. I say this because behind these labels are hidden several assumptions about the nature of social organization. For instance, when we say the central authority of the Mughals, it is immediately taken as a centralized state and so on. I saw a letter written by Aurangazed to his grandson. The letter states two things: (a) that the exchequer receipts in Jehangir’s time was Rs. 60 Lakhs and the expenditure was Rs. 1.5 crore. So there was a deficit and this was met from the savings which Akbar had left; (b) that Shahjehan, who followed Jehangir, increased receipts to Rs. 1.5 crore and reduced the expenditure to Rs 1 crore. But estimates of the total revenue during the Mughal period are between Rs. 10 crores and Rs. 20 crores. If only a small portion of the total revenue was received by the emperor, what happened to the rest of the revenue? I think all historians are convinced that even during the reign of Aurangazed the maximum exchequer receipts never exceeded 20 per cent of the claimed revenue of the empire. The usual explanation is that the remaining 80 per cent was distributed among the feudal lords.

My surmise is that the overwhelming proportion of revenue was left at the local level itself, to be spent on activities, prescribed by age-old custom, such as running of choultries or chatrams, patashalas or schools, maintenance of tanks etc., grants to temples and other religious activities, honorarium to scholars, poets, medical-men, astrologers, magicians etc. this must have been a very ancient arrangement which was followed even during the Mughal period. But when the British came they step by step started collecting 50 per cent to 60 per cent of the gross produce as revenue from all sources and one can imagine the consequences. It took away the entire surplus that our villagers had, and as a result they could no longer maintain chatrams or temples, tanks or schools.

K: Do you mean the British did this consciously?
D: The British did what was natural for them to do. In England the peasants paid over 50 per cent of their produce to the landlords and coming to the conclusion that as conquerors they owned all land, etc., the British imposed the same on us. It is not that they invented it for India. Wherever they went they did the same thing. Probably the British thought that it was the right thing to do, because they had a concept of state and society which was a centralized one. This goes back to almost 1,000 years and was not because of the coming of capitalism in England. For instance, after the Norman conquest in around 1100 A.D, nearly 95 per cent of the resources of England were gathered and distributed among the conqueror that is the king, the established churches and the new nobility.

K: Would you then say that India in 1750 or earlier was much better than England? What was the condition of the common man in India?
D: I am not very sure if, on the basis of the available data, one can compare the two societies. But there are certain facts that give us a very different picture of Indian society. For instance, the question of agricultural productivity and wages in India was discussed in Britain, in the Edinburgh Review of July 1804. On comparison it was found that the productivity in India was several times higher than in Britain. What surprised the British even more was the finding that the wages of the Indian agricultural laborer in real terms were substantially higher than his counterpart in Britain.

It was even remarked that if they were high at the time (1800) when the Indian economy was on a decline, how much higher such wages must have been earlier? Or look at the data on the consumption pattern around 1806 from the district of Bellary. British authorities were concerned with estimating the total consumption of the people of the district and indicating the detailed consumption pattern of three categories of families (these categories were introduced by the British). The quantity of food grains estimated to have been consumed in all the three categories was the same that is half seer of grain per person per day. There were 23 other items like pulses, ghee, oil, coconuts, vegetables, betel nuts, etc. the total per capita per annum consumption was estimated at Rs. 17 for those in the first category, Rs. 9 for those in the second category and Rs. 7 for those in the third category.

In Tanjore in 1805, the number of mirasdars (those with permanent rights in land) was put at 62,000 of which 42,000 belonged to the sudras and castes below them. In the Baramahals (the present Salem district) the number of cultivators of the group termed pariah was estimated at 32,474 out of a total population of around 6 lakhs. In 1799, in Chingleput district, the number of mirasdars actually listed was 8,300 and the collector was of the view that the actual number was ten times more. If one looks deep enough, corresponding images of other aspects of Indian and society emerge from British records of the late eighteenth century. For example, Mr. Alexander Read, who originated the Madras land revenue system, said that the only noticeable difference between the nobility and servants in Hyderabad around 1780 was that the clothes of the former were more clean.

K: I think your forthcoming book on education in pre-British India has some interesting facts*.
D: Yes, For instance, a detailed survey of the surviving indigenous system of education was carried out in the Madras Presidency during 1922-1925. The survey indicated that 11,575 schools and 1,094 colleges were still then in existence in the Presidency and that the number of students were 1, 57,195 and 5,431 respectively. The much more surprising information this survey provided is with regard to the broader caste composition of the students in the schools. According to it those belonging to the sudras and castes below them formed 70 per cent to 80 per cent of the total students in Tamil-speaking areas; 62 per cent in the Oriya areas; 54 per cent in the Malayalam speaking areas; and 35 per cent to 40 per cent in Telugu-speaking areas. The Governor of Madras further estimated that over 25 per cent of the boys of the school-going age were attending these schools and that a substantial proportion were receiving education at home. In Madras about 26,000 boys were receiving their education at home and about 5,500 were attending schools. In Malabar, the number of those engaged in college level studies at home was about 1,600 as compared to a mere 75 in a college run by the family of the then impoverished Samudrin Raja. Again, in the district of Malabar the number of Muslim girls attending schools was surprisingly large 1,122 girls as compared to 3,196 Muslim boys. Incidentally, the number of Muslim girls attending school there 60 years, in 1884-1885, was just 700 or so. I have reproduced must of the documents in my book. A number of our notions about education in per-British Indian society have to be discarded in the light of these British reports and surveys.

K: Would you like to highlight some of our achievements in science and technology?
D: Take astronomy and mathematics. There is an interesting paper by Sir Robert Barker, who was the British Commander-in-Chief in Bengal and later a member of British Parliament, on the famous observatory at Benaras. In fact, the Encyclopedia Britannica till its 1823 edition considered this observatory as one of the five celebrated observatories of the world. There is a paper, published in 1790, by John Playfair, FRS and Professor of Mathematics at the University of Edinburgh, Playfair’s paper is actually a detailed review of a book, the famous French historian of astronomy, Bailly wrote on Indian astronomy. Around the same year, a paper by Ruben Burrow on Binomial Theorem was published. Then we have the account of Le Gentil who was an assistant to the famous Cassini, about how the Tamils calculated the eclipse, without pen and pencil, computing with shells on the basis of memorized tables. Regarding technology there are many papers that speak of our excellent agricultural techniques.

There is a big report by Col. Alexander Walker written around 1820, on the agriculture in Malabar and Gujarat. There is a very interesting paper on inoculation against small pox written by Holwell, who himself was a medical man and was for a short period Governor of Bengal. He described in great detail the practice of inoculation in Bengal and other areas. The British banned the Indian method of inoculating against small pox in 1802-1803.

There is a paper by Capt. Halcott on the drill plough employed in south India. He has said that he never imagined a drill plough considered as a modern European invention, at work in remote village in India. He also described the construction of the drill plough as very simple and neat. There are accounts of the Indian process of making steel which was called ‘wootz’. The British experts who examined samples of ‘wootz’ sent to them by one Dr. Helenus Scott have commented that it is decidedly superior compared in any other steel they have seen. There are also accounts of ice-making, paper making and making of mortar.

K: But there were also Britishers who described India and Indians as wretched, miserable ignorant and so on.
D: I think it is a false impression that the early nineteenth century British mind was in any sense concerned with economic or social backwardness of India and that its usages of terms like ‘ignorance’, misery’, pertain to any socioeconomic context. What obtained in the early nineteenth century Britain were a well defined hierarchical structure, a rigorous legal system, an administrative and military structure admission to which was based on birth, patronage or purchase. To such a mind the liveliness of ordinary Indian society, its relative cohesive social structure, its educational institutions, admission to which did not depend on wealth, its joint ownership of land, etc. were points not in its favor but elements which indicated its depravity and laxity.

There was a debate in the House of Commons in 1813. Many members were of the view that the people of India and the Indian society (in spite of the turmoil and disorganization it was passing through) were still to be envied for their enlightened manners, their tolerance, their social cohesiveness and their relative prosperity. The debate was primarily concerned with the saving of the soul of the Indian people and its main mover was the great nineteenth century Englishman, Mr. William Wilberforce. He argued that Greece and Rome were wretched till they got converted to Christianity. Therefore, it was impossible that the Indians could be happy enlightened, in their unchristian state. Mr. Wilberforce concluded that India must be wretched, depraved and sunk deep in ignorance till they could become Christians.

So, I believe the terms wretched, ignorant, etc. were used to describe religious India. Indians were more religious than socio-economic. In fact, socio-economic backwardness may be taken as a post-1800 phenomenon in India. It seems to have been caused by a colossal disorganization of the Indian body politic and by the centralization of authority and resources by the British system. The result was that for the next hundred years such authority and the ever increasing resources it began to command was applied to the purpose of further conquest, including areas extending up to China and St. Helena. It was also used in the erection and maintenance of the new metropolises and the military cantonments and the export of maximum possible revenue for the larger purposes of the British economy.

But once disorganization, impoverishment and subjugation had gone far enough and could not go any further without having adverse effects on the total revenue receipts, the whole of Indian society was placed under a sort of freeze and it became the task of scholarship to establish that such impoverishment and disorganization had been endemic to Indian culture.

K: It is quite interesting and means that we, in India, ad a different theory of polity which did not grant the ruler or the king absolute power.
D: Yes, in Mahabharata it is stated that the people should gird themselves up and kill a cruel king who does not protect his subjects, who extracts taxes and robs them of their wealth, etc. such a king is considered kali or the evil incarnate. It is further said that such a king should be killed like a dog that is afflicted with madness.

K: But we had several kings who were evil incarnate…..
D: Of course. We are talking only about political theory. But, I believe, in the West the king and absolute power, I mean in theory.

K: But how did the view that the king in Hindu polity is a tyrant gain currency?
D: May be the behavior of our princes during the British rule created such an impression. I think it is more because of lack of sufficient knowledge about our history and culture.

K: What do you say about the caste system? I suppose you would not say that the problem of caste is only a post-1800 one. I feel caste poses a lot of problems when we begin defending our tradition.
D: You are right. Caste seems to be the major symbol of India’s backwardness. But how have we arrived at such a conclusion? Like village, castes have been invariable constituents of Indian society throughout history. It is true that according to Manusmriti etc., society in India was at a certain stage divided into four varnas. But while castes and tribes have existed in India and continue to exist today, never before in history do they seem to have posed a major problem.

Historically they have existed side by side, they have interacted among themselves, and groups of them have had ritual or real fights with each other and so on. Contrary to accepted assumptions and perhaps to Mansumritic law, when the British began to conquer India, the majority of Rajas had been from the Sudra Varna. It is possible that the existence of separate castes and tribes have historically been responsible for the relative weakness of Indian polity. On the other hand it can also be argued that the existence of caste added to the tenacity of Indian society, to its capacity to survive, and to be able to stand up again. Under what circumstances and what arrangements castes are divisive of Indian society or lead to its cohesion are questions which still have no conclusive answer.

For the British, caste was a great obstacle, an unmitigated evil not because they believed in castelessness or a non-hierarchical system but because it stood in the way of their breaking Indian society. I think caste did hinder the process of atomization of Indian society and made the task of conquest and governance more difficult. The present fury and theoretical formulation against the organization of Indian society into caste, whatever the justification or otherwise of caste today, thus begins with British rule.