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Return of the Peasant

Sajal Nag

By Arupjyoti Saikia
Routledge, New Delhi, 2014, pp. xvi-480, Rs. 1195.00


The postmodernist invasion has not only pushed certain traditional histories out of circulation but also relegated the extremely useful analysis of class and movements that Indian history was used to. Although certain tribal movements and peasant movements in Indian history were fortunate enough to be retrieved by the subaltern historiographical schools, the peasants of Assam were not one of these. As it is, the peasants of Assam were not given even one-third of the volume of space allotted to secessionist movements and insurgency, ethnic assertion and conflicts, regionalist movements, autonomy movements, anti-alien movements of the region. Assam has a richer history of peasant struggles than middle class political activities which needed to be recorded and allotted the role it deserved in the making of modern Assam. Saikia’s work brings back the old fashioned history of peasant protest and politics into the limelight again.   The author says that an essentially agrarian economy, converted into a prosperous plantation economy, Assam has since been written about mostly for non-agrarian themes. He is also aware that in this web of middle class movements the peasants who were the makers of modern Assam were completely lost. Except for a number of excellent works in the vernacular, the Assamese peasants were touched only peripherally. The Assamese peasantry came into prominence with the advent of the British in the Valley (even though it was the peasants who through a violent uprising had brought down the earlier Ahom regime ) and their various ‘colonial modernizing’ endeavours and it is the British colonial state as well as the landowning classes that the Assamese peasants had to fight against for their survival.   Saikia’s chapter on the ‘Agrarian Setting 1900-50’ takes the landscape of the Brahma-putra Valley as the backdrop of the agrarian economy. Although the role of the colonial state does not figure in shaping such an economy, he does well to demonstrate share-cropping as a major feature of this economy. It is indeed curious that in a ryotwari area there was such a huge rise of landlordism and sharecropping. The author obliquely attributes it to the rise of absentee landlordism which was not only extensive but also played an important role in shaping the economy—the number of absentee landlords was higher than the rate of population growth as shown by the author. This had coincided with the coeval rise of sharecropping. What the author does not do ...

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