Rural Labour in Colonial India
Cyan Prakash, Bonded Histories: Genealogies of Labour Servitude in Colonial India, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1990; p. 250;
price not stated.
Cyan Prakash (ed.) The World of the Rural Labourer in Colonial
India, Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 1992; p. 310; Rs. 275.
Cyan Prakash's Bonded Histories . . . deals with a problem for which the region chosen—Bihar—is particularly well-known. The issue of bonded labour has come up time and again in post-colonial India to be debated, examined and soon forgotten. It's an anathema after 45 years of independence and raises questions about the nature of Indian capitalist development itself. It symbolises a structure of continuity that spans at least three centuries and three different historical time-zones. That there are people today who work to re-pay paltry amounts borrowed two or three generations ago, reflect problems and processes which threaten to undermine the very basics of the Indian state and the constitution.
Prakash takes up the kamia-malik (bonded agricultural labourer-landlord) relationship for scrutiny. Although he locates Bihar as a 'backwater' yesterday, and as an area which 'often evokes revulsion' in other parts of India, today, the last few years disprove this if one is specifically talking about caste. However, this does not contradict some specificities of Bihar as a region—certain aspects of which have been painstakingly painted by the author.
Prakash's basic method seeks to explore the shifts and changes, the continuities and the breaks in the context of the bonded labourers. He emphasises how the concept of debt-bondage fetishises slavery, and also delineates the colonial discourse of 'freedom' which sought to reform 'unfreedom*. After all, how could an anachronistic thing like slavery be accepted by the colonialist who was associated with 'civilising the Orient'? The question of loan repayment veiled slavery. Thus, one had to return a loan or work to repay it. While projecting this logic, Prakash questions the applicability of the 'free-unfree' paradigm. Simultaneously, he refers to the simplistic linear logic of
Social Scientist, Vol. 20, Nos. 7-8, July-August 1992.