Book Review: Neeladri Bhattacharya’s The Great Agrarian Conquest



Neeladri Bhattacharya’s monograph is a genealogy of the “agrarian” as a colonial project and an account of its transgression through rural agency, all rolled into an exemplary history of the Punjab under British rule. The book aims to steer a course between critical Marxism — which sought to lay bare the interactions between “agrarian society” and “capital” while taking those terms to be self-evident — and the “cultural turn” of the 1990s which questioned the stability of meaning and highlighted its manifold entanglements with practices of power and exclusion, but nonetheless ignored economic questions (pp. 10–11). The many threads of this ambitious project are skilfully woven and connected through a total of 10 chapters (excluding an introduction and epilogue, distributed over five sections) allowing the read to follow both the particularities of each case and the overarching argument as it unfolds.

Bhattacharya argues that the notion of a stable entity termed “agrarian” is inseparable from the categories that constitute it; that these categories are deeply tied to a particular colonial vision and practice that sought to faithfully represent the colonized so they may be ruled better but inadvertently created a new reality that did not exist prior to it; and that the new “agrarian” order excluded large numbers of people from the land and the “village” from the wider rural world of which it was an integral part. He also highlights the reconfiguration of the homogenizing vision by rural inhabitants themselves and that the resulting order manifested as a constant negotiation between the state and those whom it intended to control.

Bhattacharya begins by delineating two styles of governance in early colonial Punjab. The first model is of “personal rule” by the horse-riding soldier-official, knowledgeable about the “essential character” of the people he governs and using their own traditions to dispense speedy justice on the spot. The second model is one of elaborate laws and clearly defined codes and procedures that centralize authority and make the “soldier-official” accountable to it. Yet despite these differences, both shared a type of patriarchal paternalism which desired to build colonial rule on an “intimate connection” with the native population. It is this hybrid which formed the basis of the “non-regulation” administrative system of the Punjab, which involved a division of the territory into districts, a union of administrative, executive, and judicial power in the District commissioner and a notion of personalized and patriarchal rule of the commissioner (p. 46). More importantly, this paternalism became obsessed, particularly after 1857, with preserving the norms, customs, and relations of local society as the foundations of effective rule. It is this turn towards “preservation” and “protection” of what the British believed to be Punjab’s “ancient village communities” of peasants that Bhattacharya identifies as the watershed in shaping the form of colonial rule here.

In order to know what to protect, the British had to acquire an authoritative knowledge of local society through observations and indigenous informants. Yet their forays into the field revealed a rural world of staggering diversity, local norms, and relations that could not be translated into bureaucratic categories without doing indelible violence to them. The result was the invention of a new “agrarian” social order, with its attendant exclusions, oppressions, and possibilities. For instance, the British singled out settled agriculture as the only genuinely rural activity and concomitantly, the peasant village as its authentic abode, in turn recasting all other activities from dry grain farming to cattle rearing as residual against the “ideal” rural landscape. Moreover, colonial officials undertook classification and gradation of rights in land in relation to blood and ancestry, which privileged the patriarchal voice of the dominant castes. By stamping this voice with the legal authority of the colonial state, a whole host of groups who were deemed outside the lineage — women, the landless and resident traders and moneylenders in particular — were marginalized.

Contradictions culminated in the canal colonies of western Punjab (now in Pakistan). In the vast scrublands populated by pastoralist nomads, imperial irrigation science and the colonial obsession with productivity were unified to envisage a new rural order centred on perennial canals and peasant agriculture of eastern Punjab (in India). Land was to be handed out to the peasant castes, and the pastoralist way of life was slowly marginalized as the latter were left without their grazing lands and were forced to turn towards settled agriculture. This experiment in social engineering sought to create ideal villages, neatly divided into a “regime of squares” with clearly demarcated rights and claims over land and water, immense increases in productivity, and a “new higher form of civilization.” But the results were less than sanguine with a combination of a drop in crop yields, repeated pest attacks, land contestations and revolts against the new order.

The book ends with a reworking of Lenin’s two paths of agrarian capitalism — from above and from below — as trajectories towards agrarian modernity in the colonial context. Bhattacharya conceptualizes eastern Punjab as a case of transformation “from below,” where reliance on tradition and custom is key to the conquest, and the canal colonies as a case of state-led transition “from above” where the colonial government evinced a desire to impose an entirely new agrarian order. In practice, the boundary between the two was increasingly blurred. The richness of this book shall come to inform debates not simply on colonial Punjab but on the colonial experience across the globe.

However, there is one curious omission in the work which is worth discussing before I conclude: the absence of any detailed study of the process of commercialization. This is hardly a minor point, for just as the new agrarian order owed its existence to the vision and practice of the colonial state, its constitution and character were also shaped in determinate ways by market participation. In particular, peasant agriculture in the canal colonies was instituted upon intensive, export-based commodity production of wheat and cotton, made possible by the perennial canals (Islam, 1997). The oversight is especially surprising, given not only the superb studies of Indian colonial commodities as part of global capitalism in recent years (e.g., Ali, 2018; Kumar, 2012) but also the author’s own seminal work mapping the commercialization of crop, credit, and labour markets in rural colonial Punjab (Bhattacharya, 1985a, 1985b). One wishes that the dialectic articulated in the book between imperial ambition and actual outcome was extended to this realm for it would have strengthened the argument in many ways.

Finally, while Bhattacharya is justified in indicting the hubris of imperial science and engineering, he understates the fact that for many eastern Punjabi peasant settlers, the colonies did become vehicles for relative material well- being and upward social mobility. Of course, this prosperity was unevenly distributed and precarious; however, most of it was attained not by imperial largesse but the guile and effort of indigenous actors, much of it was foundered during epidemics, depressions, and other calamities, and at least some of it played a role in the rise of communalism which culminated in the furies of British India’s Partition in 1947. Yet grappling with its contradictions is important in any account of agrarian change in colonial Punjab. These minor quibbles aside, the book is a landmark in the study of colonial rule and should be required reading for all students of the subject.


Post edited by Siddharth Chakravarty. This is an abridged version of Muhammad Ali Jan’s review of Neeladri Bhattacharya’s book The Great Agrarian Conquest: The Colonial Reshaping of a Rural World.

Image from SUNY Press

The great agarian conquest