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Production Relations and Social Classes in History

Manjeet Baruah

By Amalendu Guha
Anwesha, Guwahati, 2014, pp. 309, Rs. 450.00


It is heartening that after a gap of a decade and a half, Amalendu Guha’s Medieval and Early Colonial Assam: Society, Polity, Economy is once again available in bookshops. The twelve chapters originally published as articles between the 1960s and 1980s, were compiled and published as a book in 1991. The first two chapters identify and study the region in Indian history. The following four chapters broadly deal with the period from the thirteenth to early eighteenth century, the medieval period of Assam. The last six chapters deal with the colonial period, especially the nineteenth century, and the making of colonial Assam. Unlike Guha’s widely discussed Planter Raj to Swaraj, Medieval and Early Colonial Assam has received relatively less attention. The book, nevertheless, is important for several reasons, of which three are underlined here. First, one line of investigation that runs throughout the book is that of productive relations and formation of socio-economic classes in Assam. To investigate the issue for both the precolonial and the early colonial period, Guha makes use of concepts such as tribe, peasant and caste. These concepts are used to understand whether the organization of society can be framed in terms of formation or historical development of socio-economic classes. Guha’s argument is that social differentiation remained rudimentary. In other words, if on the one hand, distinction between tribe, peasant or caste remained blurred, especially for the precolonial period, the production process too (i.e., technologies of production, monetization of economy, etc.) has remained rudimentary. The question Guha poses is, what explains such a nature of society and production process? He provides two sets of answers, for the precolonial and the colonial periods. The general rationale for ‘backwardness’ in the precolonial period is shown as due to a combination of three factors: the peculiarity of geographical location of the Brahmaputra Valley (resulting in the tribe-peasant continuum throughout), slow Sanskritization (i.e., coming of technologies of production) and relative isolation of the area from larger state making processes. As a result, land relations remained entangled between control of forms of the state apparatus, ‘feudal’ lords and community. Though the individual was entitled to use productive land, the entanglement inhibited the development of true forms of peasant, feudal lord or monarch. In the process, what it also prevented was the growth of a system of surplus appropriation which was revenue centric. At the same time and ...

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