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River Valleys, Hill States and Colonial Rule

Dhirendra Datt Dangwal

By Aniket Alam
Foundation Books, Cambridge University Press India, New Delhi, 2008, pp. 334, Rs. 750.00

VOLUME XXXII NUMBER 9 September 2008

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 ...

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