On the Evolution of the Class of Agricultural Labourers in India
THIS PAPER will be divided into three parts: (i) a discussion of the historical origins of the modern class of wage-workers in agriculture;
(ii) an analysis of the evolution of the class in the post-independence period; (iii) a tentative attempt to locate the problems of organising labour in the context of a far from polarised peasantry. Since most of what we have to say at the descriptive level is well-known, we will try to be concise with respect to descriptive material, and concentrate on drawing out the analytical hypotheses.
"Was there Feudalism in Indian History?" was the title of a recent presidential address to the Indian History Congress.1 Without entering into the controversy in detail, we may note that the question itself can be posed only on a somewhat narrow concept of "feudalism", namely, that variety represented by "classical" West European medieval economy and society from about the 8th to 12th centuries, what was characterised by manorial organisation and cultivation of the lord's demesne using the unpaid labour-services of serfs. Of course, neither manors nor labour services existed in India (at any rate, not the systematic use of labour-services for cultivation, though begar was exacted for other purposes). If however, 'feudalism^ is conceptualised as a mode of production in the Marxist sense as Maurice Dobb does,2 then neither manors nor labour services are essential characteristics of feudalism. Following closely Marx's discussion in Capital, Dobb viewed feudalism as essentially the relationship between an enserfed peasantry which is obliged to part with economic surplus and a class of overlords which monopolises property in land; the form of payment might be directly as unpaid labour services (labour rent), or as the product of surplus labour (kind rent); the specific form may vary, or there may exist a combination of two or more forms. The
*Centre for Economic Studies and Planning, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.