Divide and rule in the land of the Raj

Ancient Rights and Future Comfort
November 27, 1998

Ancient Rights and Future Comfort is one of the most exhaustive and illuminating studies of the formation of British agrarian policy in India I have read. There are innumerable books on the subject but most of them read like the "summaries of the case" put up at the start of files by assiduous head clerks. They give you an interminable narrative of official events - X wrote this letter to Y - but they make no serious attempt to identify the long-term factors determining the adoption of policies or assess the impact of British decisions on rural society. Peter Robb recognises that there are only two questions worth asking: what were the ideas inside the policy-makers' heads; and what were the repercussions of those ideas?

The ostensible subject of the book is the formation and implementation of the Bengal Tenancy Act of 1885, with special reference to the Patna Division of Bihar. The book goes far beyond the normal remit in extracting the causes and consequences of the most important agrarian reform between the Permanent Settlement and zamindari abolition. There are bravura passages on areas such as the working of the Permanent Settlement and the ultimate triumph of the pro-peasant school, but the most interesting revelations lie in the field of enforcement. If land reforms are a dead letter in Bihar today, it is thanks to the same forces that defeated the Bengal Tenancy Act a century ago. The key players in Ancient Rights and Future Comfort are the high-profile civilians, the McDonnells and Mackenzies, who campaigned for tenant rights. The unsung heroes of Robb's narrative are the settlement officers who tried to make the legislation work, making their way through every district in Bengal, recording the tenants' rights in their holdings. However, village registers were not kept up to date because of the lack of an official agency and tenants had no written evidence to defend their rights in court. Robb's sensitive dissection of the local balance of power in rural society adds a new dimension to the long drawn-out controversy over "village controllers".

I have only one complaint. Robb knows his officials and what postings or famines turned them into radicals. He is less interested in the long-term changes in British thought that legitimated tenant rights in the policy-makers' minds. Without the crisis of classical political economy and analytic jurisprudence in the 1870s and the historicists who made the case for laws appropriate to the evolutionary stage "developing societies" had reached, it is difficult to see how the crusade for tenant rights could have overcome the taboos against state interference with market forces. Robb recognises the importance of this revolution in socio-economic thought but is reluctant to pursue the intellectual prerequisites of the Bengal Tenancy Act. In every other respect, his book sets a standard for studies in this area.

Clive Dewey is professor of history, College of William and Mary, Virginia, United States.

Ancient Rights and Future Comfort: Bihar, the Bengal Tenancy Act of 1885, and British Rule in India

Author - Peter Robb
ISBN - 0 7007 0625 9
Publisher - Curzon
Price - £45.00
Pages - 378

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