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Designing an Escape Society

Richa Kumar

By James C. Scott
Orient Blackswan, New Delhi, 2010, pp. 462, Rs.799.00


James Scott, in this provocative book, has attempted to write an account of those in the margins, of people living in the peripheries of the great river valley civilizations in history. In the process, he questions nearly every accepted theory and belief about 'great civilizations' and their 'uncivilized' neighbours. Scott begins by inverting a long held belief that those who lived in the mountains, practised swidden cultivation, had oral historical traditions, and moved from place to place were backward, pre-modern, and lower on the scale of evolution towards a civilized society. He suggests that, in fact, hill people were living this kind of lifestyle by choice-a choice made not in the ancient past, but one which was an ongoing response to the waxing and waning (oppressive) power of valley states. The book's argument centres primarily around the mountainous region called Zomia, which consists of the Burmese highlands, North East India, South West China, and northern Thailand-Laos-Vietnam, but its argument has strong resonance to other parts of the world. Various strands of this argument have been made by historians and ethnographers of Southeast Asia in the past, but this book weaves them together to create a bold and assertive theory of 'escape' societies. Scott begins by emphasizing the difficulties of creating and maintaining valley societies with their extensive requirements of manpower and grain to sustain the lifestyle of the crown and elites. Citing ethnographies, histories and other secondary literature, he suggests that valley states in Zomia were unstable configurations that did not last very long. Much of the population was un-free. Warfare, slavery, taxation and raiding were integral to maintaining the power of rulers. The valleys, mostly growing wet-rice, were also vulnerable to famine, cholera epidemics due to concentrated valley living conditions, and crop failures and pest attacks due to monoculture agriculture. When state oppression and natural calamities became unbearable, people fled to the hills, undermining the fundamental basis of valley society-its manpower. Most of what we know about the history of Zomia and hill societies is through the written historical record of the wet-rice (padi) states. It is no wonder then that the record aggrandizes the achievements of valley states while denigrating the lifestyle of the hill people. One point of entry into this record is through the (failed) rebellions that have punctuated it. Perforce, the recovery of subaltern voices and agency has to rely upon reading this record against ...

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