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Unearthing the Past Gently

Mariam Dossal

By Hiroyuki Kotani
Manohar Publications, New Delhi, 2002, pp. 308, Rs. 550.00


What was Indian society really like at the time when it came under colonial rule? What was the nature and extent of this encounter and how does it continue to affect the lives of millions of people today? These surely must be among the most frequently asked and challenging of questions confronting Indian historians.   Just as geologists recognize that each boring, each terrestrial strata, each region, can reveal a varied combination of rock, soil and moisture, formed by different processes ranging from the volcanic, tectonic or oceanic or due to other natural activity, so too does investigation into each historical period, each social strata, reveal a wide range of relationships constructed between and across different communities and occupational groups, the result of diverse economic and political developments. Reconstructing the history of a country as large and diverse as India requires close investigation into specific regions. This is what Hiroyuki Kotani undertakes in his detailed research into the western Deccan, Konkan and coastal Gujarat for a period spanning more than three hundred years and one which saw the transition from a feudal to a colonial society.   Kotani operates with the concept of ‘an expanded feudalism’ to distinguish features present in Indian society from those in feudal Europe. He focuses on the vatan system, an elaborate system of rights, perquisites and obligations, and sees it as the key to understanding the fundamental structures of pre-colonial India. Vatan existed both in the form of land and as office. Rejecting the already oft-criticized thesis of the unchanging village community, Kotani notes the extent of change in the vatan system that had occurred before the establishment of British rule. By the seventeenth century, vatans of Deshmukhi and Patilki had come to be ‘divided, sold and transferred freely…’. and tributes earlier paid in kind or rendered in labour service were bought, sold and accumulated by individual vatandars, and new vatans created such as those of Sardeshmukhi and Sarpatiliki. He emphasizes rightly that while proprietory rights existed in land in the pre-British Deccan no proprietory rights existed which were independent of social relationships and communal ties.   It was the pace of change then, which increased with colonial rule, rapid change brought about by legislation and a growing market in land. These combined with the loss of hereditary vatan rights transformed rural society substantively. Evidence drawn from legal cases and judgments delivered by the Sadr Diwani Adalat and ...

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