A Review of “Labour Bondage in West India”

Pratyush Chandra  

Jan Breman, Labour Bondage in West India: From Past to Present , Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 2007, ISBN:9-780195-685213, pp. xii+216, Price (HB) Rs. 525.

The combined socio-economic development in India has been an enigma for the political economists. It defies any strict characterization in terms of a single mode of production. Any alternative analysis needs to provide a coherent semantics of the capitalist adoption and oft-times perpetuation of the ‘outmoded’ modes of exploitation. Jan Breman’s contribution in unfolding the political economy behind the dynamic persistence of labour bondage and other ‘non-capitalist’ forms of subordination of rural labour has been widely recognized. His conceptualization of ‘footloose labour’ substantiated by his empirical studies of the phenomenon of rural-to-rural migration and non-agricultural occupations in rural Gujarat provides a formidable picture of how (post)modernity perpetuates informal sector and “neo-bondage” in the age of neoliberalism.

The present book complements Breman’s other works by focusing “on the historical antecedents of the ongoing subordination of rural labour in what has come to be hailed as a booming economy”.(x) It provides a historical survey of the changing nature of land rights, rural bondage and conflicts, embedded within the wider political economic transformation since pre-colonial times. The book also contains a couple of very interesting chapters giving a class analysis of the agrarian unrest and anti-colonial struggle in South Gujarat, while exposing the cyclic subaltern and open assertion of rural labour within these movements.

The book begins with an analysis of the structure of the traditional rural economy, how the domestication of indigenous population and their allocation within the Hindu social hierarchy took place, how all these socio-cultural changes had a direct link with “the advent of sedentary agriculture”. Breman succeeds in demonstrating a continuous dynamic reshuffling within this supposedly rigid structuring, at least among the landed castes. Political changes, changes in tax regime, and the changing linkages of the rural economy with the wider economy all affected the local socio-economic relations and even caste-class nexus. In fact, “[t]he peasantry continued to be highly mobile until deep into the second half of the nineteenth century, and the situation stabilized only when, with the twentieth century in sight, all land fit for agriculture had been taken up for cultivation and the colonial administration had restricted the power of landlords”.(12) Also, Breman “contradicts the assumption that the village economy was a closed circuit that functioned solely to meet the needs of the inhabitants”.(28) He recognizes the limited, yet definite role of monetization in connecting the local economy with the outside world. The most important role of the British colonization was that it completed the process of land and labour enclosures, putting an end to the frontier nature of the agricultural economy in the region, sedentarizing every nomadic community and its activity, thus permanently allocating the local communities in the dominant economic structure.

The second chapter deals with the standpoints of various relevant social and class forces on halipratha or the system of bonded labour – masters, servants, the colonial and legal views, etc. The chapter begins with providing a glimpse of the basic hegemonic ideological make-up that justified the system of bondage and patronage – how masters and servants both had their own logic to exist in these relations. The colonial administrators and reporters, well-versed in western capitalist liberalism, saw this system essentially as transitory labour arrangement, which would eventually give way to free labour. Breman discusses a prominent historian Gyan Prakash’s critique of the colonial view. According to Prakash, the colonial view reduced the system of bondage – a “manifestation of social hierarchy” – to an economic transaction, classifying it as a form of debt bondage. Prakash concludes that this bondage “was constructed by the colonial discourse of freedom”, thus disconnecting it from its “pre-modern” roots. Breman though sympathetic to the idea of halipratha as a patron-client relationship, strongly departs from the postmodern tendency, evident in Prakash, of reducing various levels of determinations of this relationship into a single horizontal level, of discourse. Breman stresses that there was an “awareness on the part of both landowners and landless that the unequal relationship between them was clearly given an extra dimension by the subjugation that secured a far-reaching and permanent claim on the labour power of the hali”.(46-47) Also, Breman, as noted above, does not take the pre-colonial local economy as a closed one. Thus he finds debt-bondage in the time of the British as a continuity – a means of permanent claiming of labour power. However, there was definitely a radical intensification in this relationship during the colonial period, a decisive factor being “the gradual increase in production for the market, and the monetization of economic exchange that inevitably accompanied it”.(59)

The third chapter deals with the Bardoli movement (1922-28), which has been posed as the success story of peasant mobilization and struggle under the Gandhian nationalist leadership of the Indian National Congress. It shows how this leadership remained loyal to the ruling classes, becoming an agency to vocalize the landed class interests, while policing and crushing the assertion of the landless and halis. Even at the level of discourse, leaders like Sardar Patel used outrageous casteist rhetoric to encourage the unity and assertion of the landed gentry, while alienating and silencing the subaltern, in the name of homogeneous nationalism. The issues of land reforms and bondage were effectively sidelined.

The next chapter completes the canvas of class struggle that marked rural Gujarat, correcting the hegemonic perceptions within the nationalist movement. The landless, Dublas, halis were not “as passive and docile as these perceptions seem to suggest”. In fact, they have long practiced passive resistance by indulging in so-called ‘indiscipline’ and insubordination. Even in the Bardoli campaign of 1928, the vertical solidarity was not so much prominent as professed by the campaigners and chroniclers. There were voices even among Gandhians who were aware of the upper caste-class orientation of the movement and tried to resist it.

The nationalist voices concerned with tenancy rights and anti-landlordism united to form the All India Kisan Sabha (AIKS) at the country level in 1936. Despite a stress over an all-peasant unity evident in the name of the organization, it was a tremendous leap towards uniting the forces conscious of the need for a radical reconstruction of the rural society. At least in the ryotwari areas like Gujarat, where the AIKS was formed under the leadership of Indulal Yagnik and Dinkar Mehta, its programmes were directly translated into the mobilization and agitation of the poor peasantry and the landless including the bonded labour, the halis. Breman notes the clarity of the AIKS leadership in its understanding of the hali system especially for its conception of the halis’ masters as capitalist farmers! Despite a tremendous resistance on the part of the capitalist farmers and their nationalist leadership, the AIKS in Gujarat succeeded in posing the halipratha, landlessness and poverty as material issues rather than issues for “self-improvement” and spiritual development of the rural poor as Gandhians and upper caste-class biased leadership posed. Even the Congress leadership had to address the issue, even though reluctantly. On January 26, 1939 Sardar Patel announced the formal end of the halipratha system on the terms agreed upon by the landowners, which tilted very much on their side, especially with regard to wages etc. But the subsequent events showed the intensification of conflicts on the issue of implementation. Remarkably, despite the fact that the Congress was running the government in Bombay Province since 1937, the leadership did not insist on a government order or legislation banning bonded labour, thus allowing the landowners freedom to sabotage the agreement.

The final chapter deals with whatever happened to the various legislative measures taken for land redistribution and the continued presence of landlessness and unfree labour after independence. Ultimately, “[t]he halpatis benefited in no way at all from the land reforms. The few tenant farmers among them generally lost the land that they had sharecropped on an informal basis”. In fact, even with regard to the uncultivated land not under private ownership to which everyone had free access, “this access would be increasingly restricted as a result of the widespread trend to privatize the land”.(166) Breman thus concludes his review of land reforms in post-colonial India: “they were designed and implemented in such a way that social classes like the Halpatis were denied access to agrarian landownership…. Increasing the share of land owned by landpoor farmers was given priority above allocating plots of land to the landless masses”.(167-68) The mechanical notion widespread among the leadership with regard to the transition from agriculture to industrial development – that the rural poor has to be shifted ultimately to the urban centres – also weakened the voice for formulating and implementing any radical measure for land reform.

With regard to unfree labour too, the tremendous resistance to any abolition of the hali system at the ground level on the part of the landowners, along with the impotent nationalist leadership which was more subservient to the landed interests, broke every resolution to gain freedom for and by the landless. With the repression and disappearance of the AIKS activists from the scene, the Gandhian reformers were the only ones left to ‘represent’ the interests of the halpatis, and they had no concrete strategy for serving them except to act as middlemen using the tactics of persuasion. “The halis had no other choice than to go back to work under the old regime”.(169) Despite the announcements to the effect, even after Independence, “getting rid of unfree labour was not seen as a government responsibility but, as in 1938, was once again left to the free play of social forces. These forces were represented, on the one hand, by a class of farmers who had not only consolidated their power base at the local level during the process of independence but had further reinforced it, and on the other hand by a large mass of landless labourers whose labour power was only required in full strength for certain parts of the year.” (175) Ultimately the effect for the landless was either more indebtedness, or they had to seek employment outside agriculture. The hegemonic social forces including their political representatives were free from any responsibility in this “free play of social forces”. Breman discusses how the one-sided class struggle over the legislative measures like the fixing of minimum wages too were effectively emasculated, leaving the rural poor unrepresented.

The book goes on to discuss how the tools of repression were utilized to deradicalize the rural poor. In fact, “[t]he Congress party, which had come to power after Independence both at the central level and in the separate states, put an end to the pressure that had been placed on the leaders of the nationalist movement for decades to pursue a rural policy in the interests of the landless and landpoor peasants.”(180) Breman narrates how the halis and tribals fared when they were “henceforth [placed] under the protection of the Gandhian reformers”. Even the moderate and conciliatory measures of these reformers were resisted by the landed classes.

In the end, the book elaborates on the reasons behind the gradual disappearance of bondage, discussing the seminal contributions of Daniel Thorner, “who portrayed the development of the underclass in the agricultural economy of South Asia in the 1950s and 1960s”.(188) With the gradual capitalist development in the region and the intensification of local class struggle, the bondage as practiced till then became both economically and politically untenable. “Bonded labour came to an end not because of government intervention but because employers and employees, for different reasons, wanted it that way…The disintegration of the halipratha system was an expression of the resistance of the landless underclass to the ideology and practice of inequality”.(193)

In my view, the most important contribution of the present book has been to trace the trajectory of class struggle over the issue of bondage. In this process, Breman is able to deconstruct the anti-colonial politics, legal, legislative and social reforms before and after independence as expressions of multi-level struggles between various classes. Nothing is conceded by anyone without resistance from others. Even the chronicling of these struggles has been sharply influenced by the conflicts of interests, and this book succeeds in presenting a holistic picture of these discursive conflicts from the standpoint of the exploited and downtrodden.

(A slightly modified version of the article was published in the Indian Journal of Labour Economics 50(1), 2007)

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