Social Scientist. v 11, no. 118 (March 1983) p. 21.


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IRFAN HABIB*

The Peasant in Indian History

THE MOMENTOUS events of this century have led to a world-wide recognition that peasants, who constitute the largest single segment of mankind, may have a special part to play in shaping our destinies. In interpreting the historical qualities of the peasantry, Chayanov and Mao Zedong offer two widely different, even opposite, outlooks. Yet both of them have inspired renewed explorations into the past of the peasantry with a view to discovering its capacities of resistance and change.

In India an endeavour began for reconstructing the history of the peasants as a pre-condition for identifying the main historical periods and processes: D D Kosambi and R S Sharma, together with Daniel Thorner, brought the peasants into the study of Indian history for the first time. In what follows the debt to these and other scholars for knowledge as well as inspiration would be obvious.

A rigorous definition of the peasant is desirable, though it is naturally elusive. I take the peasant to mean a person who undertakes agriculture on his own, working with his own implements and using the labour of his family. This definition, which would be acceptable to Marxists as well as to Chayanov insofar as it goes, omits any consideration of the extent of the use of hired labour and control overland. The moment these are considered, the peasants seem to fall apart into different strata. Thus, for example, the Marxists would distinguish the rich peasant (with extensive use of hired labour), the middle peasant (mainly using family labour) and the poor peasant (with land insufficient to absorb the whole of family labour). But this distinction is accompanied by yet another, based on property relations. We can then recognise the peasant-proprietor;

the peasant with some claim to permanent or long-term occupancy;

and the seasonal share-cropper, as separate categories. These do not (and need not) directly coincide with the three mentioned earlier, though in practice many poor peasants, and very few rich peasants are share-croppers. There is then the distinction by 'wealth' alone:

*Professor of History, Aligarh Muslim University, and President of the Indian History Congress at its forty-third session at Kurukshetra, 1982.



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