Mode of Production and the Extent of Peasant Differentiation in Pre-British Bengal
ONE OF THE MAJOR issues of debate regarding the pre-British Bengal society is on the extent of differentiation within the ranks of the peasantry on the eve of the British take over. This is a crucial issue because it provides a benchmark for a proper assessment of the impact of the British economic and social policies on the Bengal villages. Two extreme positions can be easily identified. -There are those who take the view that the pre-British Bengal conformed to the model of egalitarian village communities with communal land ownership proposed by British scholars like Henry Main or Sir Charles Metcaife1 and used by Karl Marx to develop his concept of the Asiatic Mode of Production.2 Ramkrishna Mukherjee3 and Anupam Sen4 are prominent among those who hold this view. On the other side are those who believe that the economic and social life in Bengal was considerably differentiated before the war of 1757, and that there has in fact been very little structural change ever since. Ratnalekha Roy5 is a prominent spokeswoman of the second school. Let me add that this debate is part of a bigger debate on the degree of differentiation of the peasantry in pre-British India.6
In this paper we propose to examine critically these two diametrically opposite view points, and then to put forward a tentative outline of the social and economic life in pre-British Bengal in order to characterise its mode of production. At the outset, it is necessary to point to some of the serious problems our enquiry had to face. First is the problem of data. While a great deal is known about the period under the colonial rule, the data are either absent or are not available in a usable form for the pre-colonial period. Unlike the case of North India, the land and revenue records for Bengal are far from being adequate. The famous settlement of Todarmall in 1583 covered only a small part of Bengal, and even by the late seventeenth century only 1.5 per cent of the Bengal villages were measured as compared to the average of 49 per cent for the whole empire7 and there too the data' collected were far
*Professor, Department of Economics, Calcutta University, Calcutta.