Bias in Colonial History
ELISABETH WHITCOMBE, AGRARIAN CONDITIONS IN NORTHERN INDIA, VOLUME I: THE UNITED PROVINCES UNDER THE BRITISH RULE, 1860-1900. New Delhi and California 1972, pp xxviii + 330.
THIS BOOK maintains that modern agricultural conditions result from a combination, and polarization, of the forces of transformation and preservation at work during the latter half of the nineteenth century. It makes the claim too, that the present institutional framework derives its immediate origins from that period.
Understanding of the present involves clarification of the past and this is, says the author, why the study was undertaken. The analysis of the ecological history and of the institutional developments was based mainly on the technical records of the government. The picture that emerges is one of deteriorating agriculture brought about by the British attempt to "modernize" farming methods, the administrative system and the judicial machinery. Modernization resulted in changes both favourable and deleterious to the ecology. On the one hand the comprehensive canal system was responsible for a sharp rise in the production of cash crops and hence revenue earnings. It also created problems of drainage and waterlogging on fertile land, a sharp fall in foodgrain output with consequent modification of the trade pattern. Colonial intervention came in the form of new laws, regulating relations between the different agrarian strata, which intensified exploitation by the landlords; they were made to pay up more taxes, and in the new situation in which their employment opportunities in the army and government service were cut after the 1957 Revolt, the incidence fell on the peasants.
Though Elisabeth Whitcombe's is a distinctive contribution to the subject, she does not seem to have made the fullest use of official statistics. She goes to great lengths to drive home the point that the huge scheme of