Saturday, January 30, 2010

On the agriculture of Hindostan

The Journal of Agriculture published in 1838 carried a lengthy article ( page 29 to 63) on the “ Agriculture of Hindostan”. In its opening paras, it tried to disabuse the Englishmen of the notion that all of India held fabulous treasures:

NOTHING can be conceived more erroneous than the ideas generally entertained, regarding the aspect, physically considered, of' the great Indian possessions, which have been acquired by Great Britain. Some have formed their pictures from the romantic legends and stories peculiar to the East, where rivers are made to roll over golden sands, where flowers are breathing perennial fragrance, and where palace, mosque, and minaret are the habitations of princes and of priests. Others, from a course of somewhat more authentic historical reading, have formed for themselves greatly exaggerated notions of the wealth, pomp, and splendour of the Rajahs ; while not a few, whose maxim on most things is, that " seeing is believing," have convinced themselves of the grandeur of Hindostan, not by legend or by written report, but from a knowledge of the unequivocal circumstance of so many of our countrymen having left the North, poor, and returned from the East, rich.

But when we turn from the coast towns of Calcutta, Bombay and Madras, and passing the suburban village quietly progress into the vast territory which has been subjugated, as it were, by one spell, only to be kept in subjection by another, we find ample reasons for lowering the tone of our speculations. Instead of the pomp and parade, distinguishing the chief seats of the British Government, the eye will rest only on the depraved, the dependent, and miserable natives of the Deccan, and on dwellings almost too paltry for the habitation of human beings; in short, little elevated above those of the Esquimaux or Laplander.

It then goes on to describe in detail the methods of cultivation, the various crops, how Britain could harness the potential of India and, in passing, warns that it would be dangerous to try out European innovations in a country with such established beliefs and customs.

The communities of Hindostan are held together by a peculiar system, which, although considerably behind those of Europe in moral refinement, is yet a curious admixture of law, custom, and religious ceremony. The great mass of the natives are cultivators of the soil, which they hold by tenure of an annual rent, generally a sixteenth of the whole produce, payable to their immediate superiors, by whom, again, a tax is paid to Government. The country is divided into districts; these districts subdivided into villages. Each village forms an independent association of agriculturists, with its own establishment of officers, who, for certain duties to be performed, have a tithe of the produce, or a portion of land. These offices are generally hereditary. The cultivator's interest in the soil is hereditary also.

The officers of the village are the Potail, or head man, who is the organ of communication with Government, the collector of the public dues, and sometimes lessee of the village,— the Bullaye, a sort of constable, who, from lns acquaintance with local rights and boundaries, gives evidence about disputed land-marks, —and the Putwarry, or register, who keeps accounts of all village matters. As with ourselves, the priest, the watchman, the carpenter, the blacksmith and the barber, may also be considered as public characters.

These village communities are connected by various links with the general officers of the district, and thence with the Zemindary, who is usually a great functionary of Government, and by whom, under the Mogul dynasty, the land-tax was finally paid into the royal treasury. A general system of magistracy and police is thus formed, which is consecrated by immemorial usage in the minds of the population ; and which, although sometimes perverted to improper ends, has been found far from ineffectual in maintaining the tranquility of the country. Knowing, therefore, as we do, that among no people on the face of the globe does such bigotry to established customs so inveterately prevail, it would be well for the British Government to pause before attempting European innovations, which, however consonant to our own ideas, may be at wide variance with the religious prejudices, and the associations, the feelings, and habits, consecrated by the working of a series of ages. It were certainly by far our best policy in the mean time to act cautiously ; to gradually improve the defects of the native institutions, and to uphold what is praiseworthy among them ; to repair what has moldered into decay ; and rather to re-construct than to destroy. The influence of example will act much more beneficially than law or edict. We perfectly agree -with the following opinions of an eloquent writer in the Edinburgh Review (July 1824) : —

" As conquerors," it is there said, "we have to dread the explosion of fresh conspiracies against our newly acquired territory; and when we consider that there is not, in any part of India, above one European to fifty thousand natives, and that in many parts the proportion is much smaller, this disparity presents, it must be confessed, strong temptations to rebel; and it is only by the greatest moderation and justice that we can avoid this danger. In the capacity of legislators, the greatest danger arises from our ignorance and inexperience in the local usages of the country ; in consequence of which, with the best intentions, we may commit the greatest errors, aud agitate the country with the dread of perilous innovations on manners and customs interwoven with the very frame of Indian society."


ramesh said...

ah they were wise .. the gora sahibs ..

Raj said...

Ramesh, a good feature was that there were free-lance scientists, agriculturists, missionaries who could provide and publish an independent account and opinion. So, what you get to read today is not just the 'official' version of the incidents, but from more diverse sources.