The Degradation of the Peasants
IN the course of history, England became the introducer of western civilization into India. It is, therefore, her agricultural path that has especially to be studied, because, in the ordinary subjectivity of nations, it was her ways and values that she would tend to impress upon the Indian peasants. She did not adopt the ways of thought and action of India, as did the Tartar rulers those of China. It was obvious that she would not do so. China had for many centuries impressed the Tartars with the greatness of her civilization. That, in a limited degree, had occurred with the first Englishmen who visited India and reported to their fellow countrymen. They had been profoundly impressed with the wealth and the power of the Moghul Empire.
But, in the next three centuries, England made such immense strides in national power, that it is incredible that she should not have had profound faith in the methods which had raised her from being a backward island to becoming the motherland of an increasing world-empire.
Her self-assurance, and that of other nations following the new western methods, necessarily grew with the power and wonder of invention and discovery. Science, so opposed to magic, seemed to have brought an unsurpassed magic to the new era, so that to the English and other peoples of the west, who shared in the magic, they themselves appeared as adults and the uninstructed peoples as children in the new world of power. It was only England's rarest men, who did not feel, with Macaulay, that they had no other position towards Indians than that of teachers; that they themselves had nothing to learn. The most significant changes in the fate of the Indian peasants, therefore, took place at a time of intense subjectivity, when the world was being made anew with achievements so wonderful compared to the past, that the dominance of subjectivity was unavoidable. Only a Goethe could see its danger.
It is, therefore, essential to the understanding of the path upon which the Indian peasants entered, to review the path of the English peasants, because the effect of English leadership in India would be to make the Indian peasant pursue a course similar to that which the English peasants had already taken. When it is stated that England once had its ryots or peasants with free access to the land and that, in the course of time, these "free" peasants had been practically eliminated, it will be seen how vital this question of the English agricultural path was and is to the Indian peasants. What the English underwent, the Indian peasants tend to be forced to undergo and have already in part undergone, as we shall see. Between the two paths, English and Indian, there is only a time-gap, that it to say the difference in time between the period when the English peasants were uprooted from their partnership with the land, and that of the partial uprooting of the Indian peasants.
As regards the first stage of this uprooting, the time gap is over three centuries. To understand it, Indian readers must here become travellers and travel backward in time, and visit England of the Tudor period. Though crops, weather, landscape, and other features would be northern, they would see many conditions, which would remind them of their own countryside. They would see that the greater part of the cultivated land was hedgeless, and not divided by hedges into separate fields as it is in England to-day. They would see villages, where the peasants collected, each with its church or temple, as can be seen in India now. They would see no separate farm houses, which are now characteristic of England, but are not seen in India. The tilled land, they would see, as open fields, divided into strips marked off by ridges or baulks. Only when the crops had to be protected against wandering animals, would they see temporary hedges or other protection. Beyond the tilled land they would see land where the peasants' domestic cattle fed, and yet further the primitive forest or untouched land, the English jungle, from which the original clearing for the village had been made. All this can be seen in India.
One thing they would see, which they would not see in India, and that would be a group of buildings of a more substantial kind than the humble dwellings of the peasants. These buildings belonged to a person not found in an Indian village, the lord of the village or lord of the manor, as he was called, official owner and chief of the village and its land.
If our travellers went into a village and enquired about its inhabitants, they would find conditions both similar and dissimilar to those in an Indian village. They would find the villagers divided by occupation into classes suggesting castes, but acting in common and associating together in village matters. They would find free men allowed to come and go at will, but liable to be called upon for military service; officials, who were servants of the lord of the manor; various types of unfree men of inferior social grade, but all with a right to get their living from the land; lastly the village artisans.
If they visited the substantial group of buildings or grange, our travellers might meet the lord of the manor himself. Not necessarily so, however, for he might be the owner of other manors and spend only so many weeks in residence in each, or he might be at the wars or on other national service, perhaps attending government and to his own rights and those of his class there. If absent, his steward would be seen, who acted for the lord in his absence.
Some two to three centuries before the Tudors, the English manorial system was at its best. The lords of the manors stood in a paternal relation to the villagers; agriculture, though not of the high grade of Rome or China, supplied the wants of the village amply enough except at the hard time of winter shortage; the kings themselves, such as the first two Edwards, were farmers and gardeners; the nobles, even the higher priests, followed the royal example; the humbler priests or monks of the monasteries toiled upon the land and improved and preserved the standard of agriculture by applying the knowledge they found in the Roman authors, whose language they had as priests to read and speak.
In his function as the father of the village, the lord of the manor commonly had his share of the land as strips amongst those of the peasants; he mingled with the peasants both as farmer and as a member of the village assembly. But, by the time of the Tudors, he had largely lost this intimate relation. He had become more individual and private; his holdings of land were no longer strips, but fields shut off by hedges; his house and barns were often situated outside the village. Moreover, he had privileges that gave him, as a farming landowner, further advantages, namely, in addition to a right to free labour, he had a right to fold the peasants' sheep, as well as his own, upon his land and so secure the value of their manure. The fertility of his soil and its produce were, therefore, definitely better than those of the peasants.
In this position he was unique; he had no counterpart in the Indian village. He was in part the landlord, in part the panchyat [Indian traditional village council], in part the sowcar [village moneylender] and intermediary in trading the surplus products of the village and manorial lands with the outer world, in part the farmer; lastly, he had a direct relation with the law-making power of government, where, in his own interests and experience, he stood for the superiority of private enclosed land as against the open-field land of the peasant community.
Some authorities have traced the manorial system back to the Roman villa, with the lord's estate in its centre and the cultivators working the land under servile or semi-servile conditions. Others maintain that it derived from the Anglo-Saxons and that it lost much of its original freedom in course of time. Whether the manor derived from the Roman villa or not, one thing is sure, namely that the agricultural path which England eventually took was that of Rome, that is to say it took the path of capitalistic farming for individual profit.
England produced one valuable raw material which was increasingly demanded by manufacturers of cloth, particularly those of the neighbouring country of Flanders. That material was wool. The English wool was famous. The Romans themselves had established a wool factory in Britain for the clothing of their soldiers. The Norman conquest of England in A.D. 1066 brought her into closer contact with the continent, and little by little the trade in wool grew. As it grew, it gave the lords of the manors a growing temptation to separate out their share of the land and to maintain or increase its fertility by securing for it the major part of the manure. The good pasturage resulting ensured superior wool.
The wealth, which their wool brought them, eventually induced the large landowners to take advantage of their strong position in the State to pass laws giving them a right, under certain conditions, to take for their own private possession land actually belonging to the peasants. It will be remembered that the Roman aristocrats had done the same. The principal laws conferring this power upon the lords of the manors were the Statute of Merton, A.D. 1236 and the Statute of Westminster, A.D. 1285.
This was the first encroachment due to the new dominant idea of the use of land for private profit, though to the detriment of others. The old dominant idea in Western Europe and England had taught that private property should be used for mutual good; that the primary function of the land was to produce food and not profit; that the goodness or wickedness of the trader depended upon whether he wished to help his fellowmen or aimed merely at accumulating money for his own enjoyment; that, to ensure goodness being uppermost, the principle of the Just Price must be followed. The lending of private money on interest, or usury, was above all condemned by the Church, the priesthood of which was the chief mouthpiece of the old dominant idea. By it the peasants were protected from usury. By the subtleties of usury they could not be destroyed.
In the early Tudor period the new dominant idea of the use of property for its owner's individual gain challenged the old; King Henry the Eighth and his minister, Thomas Cromwell, whose nephew was the great-grandfather of Oliver Cromwell, supported by the big landowners and the rich traders, overthrew the Church, abolished the Church's agricultural institutions, the monasteries, and took their land for themselves. They went further. They enclosed a large amount of village land for their own use and ejected the peasants, who had previously held and cultivated it.
This was the first of the heavy blows dealt to the peasant communities by their rival, the large estates or English latifundia. It was such a blow as fell upon the Roman peasants after the second Punic war. Not only were many peasants rendered homeless, but those that remained were bereft of the support and paternal care of the lords of the manors, who had now become their enemies within the villages and upon the land itself. Still more, perhaps, did their agriculture suffer from the abolition of the monasteries and the monks, who had been the learned and enterprizing agriculturalists of the mediaeval times. The monks had worked their large estates without profit; had preserved and studied the classical Roman books upon agriculture; had been active in opening out new lands, in draining marshes, reclaiming wastes, improving stock, building bridges; had given lodging and hospitality to peasants when travelling from place to place. Their abolition weakened and confined the peasantry as greatly as it strengthened the rich, who got their lands and buildings.
If our readers, travelling back in time, had visited Tudor England, they would have then seen features of the countryside, not resembling any in India, namely large fields enclosed by hedges and containing sheep; land, once cultivated, now given over to sheep, shepherds and their dogs; ruined villages and churches, as the signs of abandoned village communities. They would have seen good sheep and cattle upon the enclosed pastures, but the peasants cattle upon the meagre common land, which was left, would be pitiful to look upon in the season of scarcity, so starved were they of nourishment. Such cattle can now be seen in many parts of India for other reasons.
Times of transition of dominant ideas are always times of great suffering to certain classes. A contemporary writer calculated that, at that time (A.D. 1550), upwards of 650,000 persons lost their means of support. As the total population of England was then about four million, one in every six persons was thrown out from the home. The late Lord Ernle, in his invaluable history of English Farming, Past and Present, 1922, believed these figures to be an exaggeration, but could not himself doubt the severity of the distress. From 1487 onwards, literature, pamphlets, sermons, petitions, commissions of enquiry, acts of Parliament, bore witness to the sufferings and depopulation of the countryside. No one can dispute the miseries and misfortunes of the peasants of that time, so ample is the record of contemporaries.
The peasants never recovered, though for two centuries from the time of Elizabeth they continued their open field system. Then, from 1760 onwards, came the industrial era, with the invention of power machines; the flying shuttle, the spinning jenny, the mule, the power loom, and above all the steam engine of James Watt. With these inventions England leaped to the front of the world. Her urban population increased with unprecedented speed. There was a great demand for more food; a great profit for food-producing farmers. Sheep farming now gained a value in addition to that of the wool, the flesh value of the sheep as food. More corn was needed and much pasture land was ploughed up for corn; the balance between animal breeding and tillage was effected to the great benefit of both by mixed farming.
The art of agriculture in the capable hands of certain large farmers improved rapidly in response to the greater demand for products. Robert Bakewell (1725-1795), by whose skill the raw-boned cattle and lean sheep were turned into animals of twice their weight, contributed as much to the wealth of the country as did the great engineer-inventors of the time. Thomas Coke of Norfolk, from 1776, proved and pressed by his example the advantages of large mixed farms and large capital for the quick and abundant supply of food. He trebled his live stock, manured his fields with their excreta, grew turnips as winter food for his animals, grew clover, and made wheat flourish, where only a scanty crop of rye had previously been raised. His farm became a model of the mutual benefit of plant and animal, animal and plant.
Land increased in value, rents rose, but prices rose even more. So great was the activity in agriculture between 1780 and 1813 that investment of money in land was as profitable as that in factories. Men, who had got wealth through industry, bought up land. Capitalistic farming became a sure road to fortune. Even the great landlords, who held their land, not to cultivate themselves but to get rents, sent their sons as pupils to farmers, that they might take an understanding part in cultivation, instead of leaving it to stewards, and so secure its profits more safely to themselves.
In this big movement, the peasants of the open field system were once more attacked. After the attack in the days of the early Tudors, they and their system had generally been left at peace. Enclosures of their land had been made, but not on such a scale as to produce wide-spread suffering. But now enclosures of their land and its seizure by this means proceeded at a prodigious pace by means of the old processes and new laws. Like the Roman landlords, so now the English landlords gave themselves "legal permission to buy out small holders ... and with growing frequency to drive them out." Small holders and peasants of the open field system "disappeared like raindrops in the sea."
The peasants' system was slow and backward in its methods like that of India to-day; it had been neglected for generations, since the great landowners overthrew the last Stuart king and made themselves masters of England. It was, therefore, incapable of meeting the new demands made upon agriculture, and, in the stress of the times, its elimination became, economically at least, justified. The open field system, with one notable exception, was brought to an end; the English ryots ceased to exist; village industries were similarly destroyed. In their place were agricultural labourers dependent upon hire, living how and where they could.
William Cobbett, the champion of the agricultural labourers, traversed all England in his famous Rural Rides, and wrote such descriptions as the following (1821-32) : "The labourers seem miserably poor. Their dwellings are little better than pig-beds, and their looks indicate that their food is not nearly equal to that of a pig ... The land all along here is good. Fine fields and pastures all around; and yet the cultivators so miserable ... When I see their poor faces present me nothing but skin and bone, while they are toiling to get the wheat and the meat ready to be devoured by the taxeaters; I am ashamed to look at these poor souls and to reflect that they are my countrymen."
At that time many of the labourers sank so low that they had to be supported by the parish funds. The parish or village officials even sold their labour. "Sometimes the paupers were paraded by the overseers on a Monday morning, and the week's labour of each individual was offered at auction to the highest bidder" (Ernle). The degradation of the peasants was complete. The English agricultural path had led to what the same path led to in Roman Italy, the elimination of the family-cultivators and their agricultural system.
It has been mentioned that there was one exception to the extinction of the open field system of peasant families. It is small but it is exceedingly important, because it shows that the elimination of family cultivators was not a necessity; it was not the unavoidable sequel of poorer farming inevitably attached to family farming by the open field system. That exception was to be found in the Isle of Axholme.
The Isle of Axholme consists of 47,000 acres of low country in Lincolnshire, bounded by three rivers. The land was originally marshy. In 1627 King Charles the First, who was the lord of the island, entered into a contract with a Dutchman to reclaim the land and make it fit for tillage. For this purpose, the Dutchman brought Flemish workers, skilled in the management of marshy land, from over the sea to Axholme. They drained and farmed the land, and held their ground in spite of the efforts of the English peasants of the time to expel them. Their ancestry "affects the physical appearance and accent of the inhabitants of the present day" (Encyclopaedia Britannica, fourteenth edition).
These Flemish farmers maintained a superior type of peasant family farming, comparable to those persistent types in Egypt and China, and it is that type which has prevailed and even established its superiority into the present, for in their island "the land is extremely fertile and produces heavy crops" (Encyclopaedia Britannica).
The method of maintaining this fertility has been fully described by the picturesque pen of Sir Rider Haggard in his Rural England, 1906. Briefly it is, in addition to ordinary manures, the spreading of the mud of the rivers and their estuaries over the land by a system called "warping," as the Chinese spread the mud from their canals over their fields, and as the Nile spreads its mud over the fields of Egypt. So the soil is in part renewed and has "an almost inexhaustible richness ... and will produce magnificent crops of wheat, potatoes, celery, or whatever it may be desired to grow."
Mr. Gilbert Slater, in the Making of Modern England, 1934, also emphasizes the great significance of this superior peasant agriculture. In Axholme he too saw heavier crops than he had seen anywhere else and he concludes: "It is easy to exaggerate the economic gain of enclosure ... While the effect of enclosures was immediately stimulating to agricultural progress, it is by no means certain that its permanent effects were beneficial. It is a very striking fact that the one part of England where the movement was successfully resisted in the eighteenth century, the Isle of Axholme, has abundantly justified what Arthur Young called its barbarous refusal to enclose its arable lands. Not only are the open fields of the Isle of Axholme exceptionally well cultivated at the present time, but the island also serves as a training ground in practical and effective farming, and men who begin as labourers there frequently become large farmers elsewhere."
"Had the gentlemen of England so chosen," he writes in an earlier book, The Growth of Modern England, 1932, "the agricultural evolution of the eighteenth century could have been so controlled as to bring unexampled prosperity to the workers of the land. Actually it gave to those who had, and took away from those that had not even the little they thought they had ... Much might have been done, at least, where land was fertile and the holdings small, to make it efficient, if the policy of abolishing it had not been preferred."
Unfortunately then, the English, when they became paramount in India, were upon the second agricultural path, which had brought about the abolition of the small-holding peasants or English ryots. They brought with them the system of large private estates. Under it the landowners did not, as a rule, themselves farm their estates. They were often absentee landlords, hiring their land out to tenants for rent; the tenants on their part hiring agricultural labourers for wages. This system of landlords, tenants, and labourers, was the subjective path or fact of their own experience, which the English imposed on Bengal and elsewhere in the early part of the nineteenth century by means of the Permanent Settlement. It also introduced a lack of sympathy and appreciation of the value and needs of the ryots, that class being outside the scope of English experience.
The imposition of the English land system upon India was fortunately limited. It was the intention of Lord Cornwallis, with the support of the London Directors, to extend it. Here, however, they met with the stoutest opposition from Sir Thomas Munro (1761-1827), the governor of Madras. In a Minute of 1807, he vigorously defended the native ryotwari system, which was such as "to keep land divided into small portions amongst the ryots, and to make the same person labourer, farmer and landlord." His protesting objectivity continued throughout the forty-seven years of his service with the same refrain. "We make laws for the ryots as though they were Englishmen," he wrote, three years before his death, in a long review of the country and people, "and are surprised that they have no operation. A law might be a very good one in England but useless here." This was, it will be seen, written in the very year in which Goethe uttered the same profound truth, in words which I have selected for my preliminary quotation. Sir Thomas won and the great majority of the ryots of India were saved from the Permanent Settlement.
That which has gravely affected all the mis-valued Indian ryots has been the imposition upon them of the English view of debt.
Up to the times of the Tudors, usury in England had been restrained by a number of prohibitions. The chief of these was the Canon Law against usury, supported by the King's Council. This Law was rejected by the Puritans, who rebelled against and eventually executed Charles the First (1649).
"The success of Puritanism," are the words of Archdeacon Cunningham in his Growth of English Industry and Commerce, "meant the triumph of the new commercial morality, which held good amongst money men; capitalists had established their right to secure a return for their money, and there was no authority to insist upon any correlative duty." The control over usury was abolished, and the lending of money and credit for interest freed to attain to its present supremacy.
So when the English became permanent in India, debt and the right to recover it and its interest by law was a firmly established principle in England, both as regards things of the land and things of the city.
The English village community was destroyed from within by the lords of the manors, acting as the immediate agents of the unrestricted use of private property. In the Indian village community there was no lord of the village owning land amidst that of the peasants. The village capitalist, who traded its surplus products and who stocked the small luxuries, tools, seeds, etc., which the peasants required, was the moneylender or sowcar.
The sowcar was a village functionary, not a privileged person. He was as much confined to his function as the ryot was to his. He could not go outside it; he could not become an owner of land or cattle. The sowcar could not take from a debtor his cattle, land, house, or other property. The peasants' property was inviolable and its inviolability was supported by the State.
The sowcar, then, up to the early part of the nineteenth century, was quite separate from the English debt system. He was outside the ambit of that debt system, which was to become throughout western civilization, the huge super-sowcar, with its enormous unpayable national, municipal, and business debts. He was something very humble compared to even the early western super-sowcars. He was just a useful and necessary villager amongst villagers, who could be dealt with upon terms of equality.
It was not the man, but the dominant idea, that destroyed his primary value as a functionary and changed him to an individual grasping for his own personal advantage. It was the English who brought about this transvaluation of values. Adam Smith, in his Wealth of Nations, 1776, was their teacher and the mouthpiece of their individualism. In this book, of which the historian, Richard Green, wrote: "if books are to be measured by the effect they have produced on the fortunes of mankind, the Wealth of Nations must rank amongst the greatest of books," the author laid down that the worker must be freed from all laws designed to prevent him from pursuing his own interests in his own way. By each man following his own individual interest with the minimum of restriction, the public wealth would be best promoted.
Under these values of frank individualism, the sowcar was changed from functionary to individual; in the old code his money served a village function; in the new, it was something primarily to benefit himself as an individual, even if this caused distress and suffering to his fellow villagers. Under the dominant idea of modern civilization in Europe, he became endowed with the right, in the words of Archdeacon Cunningham already quoted, "to secure a return for his money, and there was no authority to insist upon a correlative duty," that is to say, to insist upon his social duty towards those to whom he lent money.
It will be seen that the dominant idea is all-important in the form of civilization, primitive or advanced, and the fate of men under it. It is essential to grip this fact. It at once reveals how the lives of men depend upon the practical effect of the measures and values which their great thinkers and teachers give to them. Under one set of values the sowcar is a useful village functionary; under the other he can become a tyrannical oppressor. Under one set of values the lord of the manor was a useful head of the English village; under another he took the land of the peasants from them.
It is now necessary to review the effect that the change of values had upon the sowcar and his fellow villagers. No one has described it with greater clarity than Sir Malcolm L. Darling, I.C.S., in his well-known book The Punjab Peasant in Prosperity and Debt. The words of Darling about the Punjab "apply to an area far beyond the confines of a single province," as the Royal Commissioners on Agriculture in India acknowledged. They were generally true of the Indian provinces.
Darling is quite clear about the change of the dominant idea. "Before British rule, the communal ownership of land made mortgage difficult." Money could not be raised on the security of land, because land was not private; only in a few parts of India, such as the valley of the Indus, was land held privately. Mortgage, the raising of money on land, awaited a new conception, that of private property in land. This conception of land the ruling English brought. All land in England at that time was private property; upon all English land money could be raised with the land as security. So debt, which was common enough in India, came to be transvalued; it came to have a different effect and influence upon men to that which it had in the pre-British period. "If debt was as common then as it is to-day, the moneylender was not so powerful as he subsequently became under British rule." He lived under restraints, which the British rule removed or weakened, such as those "of a vigorous village community" and the kardar or district officer of that time.
In the first years of British authority, the traditional position of the sowcar was unchanged. "For some time after the establishment of British rule these satisfactory conditions continued. The village communities retained their cohesion, and, though courts were everywhere set up in which debtors could be sued, suits against agriculturists were heard by the deputy commissioners and his assistants, who, with their intimate knowledge of village life, tended to decide them by broad principles of equity, justice and good conscience, rather than by the rigidity of law. Kindly feeling, therefore, prevailed between debtor and creditor till well into the sixties. In 1866, the Chief Court was established and pleaders were allowed to practice. Eight years later (1874-75), suits were handed over to the civil courts presided over by professional judges, called munsifs, men trained in the strictest sect of the law, for the most part born in the town, knowing little of the village and often allied with the moneylender by caste if not by actual relationship ... The rigid application of the law which ensued put the ignorant peasant entirely at the mercy of his creditor." Such is Darling's account of this transvaluation of values.
One cannot say what was the thought, if any, in this transvaluation; one can only say that whatever thought there might have been, it was overruled by habit, by subjectivity. The sowcars were anglicized. The enclosures of the lords of the manors had been supported by the Statutes of Merton and Westminster, and laws after these two; similarly the moneylending of the sowcars now received the support of law. In both cases law implanted into the villages something that was extra-village, something no longer belonging but even hostile to the village community.
The result in India has been that the peasants have been placed upon the same path as the English peasants were placed on, only they have not pursued that path so far as their English forerunners. In England the village communities were eventually completely broken up, and the rural workers sank to the degraded state which has been described. In India the panchyats [village councils] have been much weakened and have been unable to preserve the land for the peasants. Some of the peasants have sunk as low almost as was the condition of the English agricultural labourers about a century ago. They have land, but the land is only theirs in name. They are almost as much serfs and slaves as were the English labourers, who were paraded on Mondays by the parish overseers and their labour sold for the week to the highest bidder.
The strangling effect of debt upon the ryots is so well known that there is no need to illustrate it at any length. We will, therefore, confine ourselves to the selection of extreme peasant-degradation made by the Royal Commissioners on Agriculture in India, the kamias of Bihar and Orissa. "Kamias are bound servants of their masters; in return for a loan received, they bind themselves to perform whatever menial services are required of them in lieu of interest due to the loan ... In practice the system leads to the absolute degradation of the kamias." The kamia's wife may also be put to work for the sowcar. "Their joint wages are not sufficient to feed properly themselves and the normal family of children they are certain to possess. The kamia never sees any money, unless it be the occasional few pice [1/64th of a rupee] he may earn in his spare time. Consequently, he has no chance of ever repaying the principle of his debt and becoming a free man again. A kamiauti bond therefore involves a life sentence. The condition becomes hereditary."
The misery and distress caused by the sowcars are not questioned any more than were the sufferings of the Tudor peasants questioned by their contemporaries. In both cases the distress was widely recognized and in both practical men, that is to say men who deal with evils upon the spot where they arise and not with the source of their origin, strove by laws to push back and restrain the distress.
In Tudor England the laws were of two kinds, the earlier and later. The earlier were typically those of Henry the Eighth's first great minister, Cardinal Wolsey. Under his guidance Parliament made strenuous efforts to stop enclosures by passing laws and imposing penalties. "Wolsey personally interested himself in enforcing obedience to the laws against the decay of houses and farm-buildings and against the conversion of arable land to pasture. Active steps were taken to see that buildings were restored and enclosures and ditches levelled. In default heavy penalties were exacted." (Ernle.)
The second set of laws were those of the next generation, of Queen Elizabeth, Henry's daughter. They were designed to mitigate the actual effects of enclosures, and of the agricultural and trading transvaluation upon both the agricultural and industrial workers. The famous Poor Laws gave room in the State for paupers who had come to be treated almost as outcasts; the Statute of Apprentices guarded the labouring class in the new towns and factories; the Depopulation Act decreed that any new enclosure of land for sheep could only be made, if an equal amount of land was given to the peasants for the plough; the Cottagers' Act restored to the agricultural labourer his right to the land by entitling him to a cottage and four acres of land with right to the common land.
In British India, at the other end of the time-gap, laws to check the new-given power of the moneylender came quickly, as soon as the harm was recognized. The laws concerned with the peasants have been mainly like those of the first Tudor period, attempts to stop or check the immediate harms. They were such laws as the Land Improvement Loans Act of 1883; The Agricultural Loans Act of 1884; the Alienation of Land Acts in the Punjab, in Bundlekhand, in the Central Provinces, and so on. All these laws were designed to limit the evils of legalized usury. The laws and actions of the second type have been mainly attempts to restore the indebted peasants to some degree of freedom by means of the co-operative movement, to revive the panchyats, and to promote rural education.
In England, laws checked but failed to avert the eventual elimination of the peasants' system by that of large landed estates. The agricultural path remained that of Rome.
In British India, many laws have been passed and are still being passed, for law-making is the means by which practical and sympathetic men strive to correct the "evils" of a change of principle. The more evils it causes, the more laws they have to pass. Their very numbers show that in the new principle something social is lacking. When social principles are not lacking in a State's organization, little law is needed; China, for instance, has had a minimum of laws owing to the influence and guidance of the Confucian classics. But in the industrial era no factories have been so busy as those which make laws. Nevertheless, though the laws mitigate a particular evil or set of evils, in general they have failed, for they are checks within the ambit of the deeper causes of the evils. As in England, so in India, the laws to check the degradation of the peasants have mainly failed. The Royal Commissioners on Agriculture in India reported "the comparative failure of legislative measures to deal with the problem of indebtedness," and of the peasant that "where his land has passed into the possession of his creditor, no legislation will serve his need; no tenancy law will protect him." They looked to something other than law, to the recreating of the communal spirit of the peasants by the modern methods of Co-operation, originated by Friedrich Raiffeisen of Germany (1818-1888) and imbued with the communal spirit once so general amongst peasantries, as "the best hope of rural India."
It is, however, very important to note that, even as in England the Isle of Axholme created an exception to which significant lessons are attached, so too in the east, there was in the nineteenth century a most significant exception to the usual effect of the new western dominant idea upon an eastern peasantry. That exception was Java.
The Dutch founded an East India Company two years after the foundation of the English Company, and became the paramount power in Java about the same time as the English became paramount in India. The Dutch, however, pursued a different path in Java. They made no effort to impose the methods of their civilization upon the Javans for their good. There can be no difference upon this point to any one who studies the two empires. The English were originally traders, but the English officials, from Wellesley's time onwards, were generally eager to lift up the Indians to what they believed to be a higher standard of life. Many of them were men of deep religious faith and sense of duty.
The Dutch, on the other hand, seem to have been exempt from any equivalent sense of duty, nor did they stand aside from the "call to improve" for the reasons of Warren Hastings, Munro, Malcolm, Elphinstone, Metcalfe and others, namely, the objective appreciation of the Indians' customs and culture, and desire to let them work in their own way. They stood aside from indifference and lack of interest in their Javan subjects. They were traders without any missionary spirit; their only object was the Javan products for the markets of Europe. They left the cultivation of these products to the Javanese. They did not interfere with the methods of cultivation or the village customs at all; and only with the chiefs, when they were forced to do so in the interests of their trade and supremacy. Theirs was a traders' government; the government itself was the trader-in-chief. When, in the latter part of the century, the Government itself ceased to trade, it realized objectively the value of the peasantry and secured the Javanese village system and its methods of cultivation by absolutely prohibiting the sale and purchase of land.
Mr. Boys, of the Bengal Civil Service, visited Java in 1892. He came from the province of the Permanent Settlement, and wrote the following invaluable comment: "The Javans have escaped the fatal gift of proprietary right which has been the ruin of so many tens of thousands of our peasantry in India, and with which, while striving to bless, we have so effectually cursed the soil of India. It is not too much to say that the many benefits which would have been conferred on Java by the substitution of the English for the Dutch rule, is not too high a price to escape from the many evils of the unrestrained power to alienate private property. Under their present Government the Javans, according to our English ideas, ought to be the most miserable people. That they are not so, but that, on the contrary, they are the most prosperous of Oriental peasantry, is mainly due to one cause -- the inability of the Javan to raise one single florin on the security of his fields, and the protection thus gained by him against the moneylender and himself. Nature is bountiful in Java, and undoubtedly the abundant fertility of the soil enables the Javan to stand up under many ills to which he is subject; but were her fecundity doubled, were she able to pour her gifts as from a cornucopia into his lap, nothing would ultimately save him from the moneylender and from consequent eviction from his fields and his home if he were able to pledge the one or the other as a security for an advance."
Just as the Isle of Axholme shows that the English peasantry might have been made to progress along their accustomed path and preserved the intense and personal agriculture for which they are suited, so the story of Java in the nineteenth century shows that the Indian peasantry might have been kept upon their accustomed path. The example of Java was, however, not able to influence the English rulers in the nineteenth century, but its objectivity has since been adopted by several of the governments of Tropical Africa, with great benefit to their peasantries, who thereby enter the inevitable new era upon their accustomed path without danger of loss of land through debt. They are left in possession of their portion of freedom. But, when there is debt on the security of land, there is no peasant freedom and the real government is not the Government, but the subsidiary one of the moneylenders. Through the legalization of moneylenders a Government, whatever be its public professions and maxims, keeps, without further effort, a peasantry in thrall.
Table of Contents
1. British and Native Systems of Government in India
2. Conflicting Dominant Ideas
3. The First Agricultural Path
4. The Second Agricultural Path
5. The Degradation of the Peasants
6. The Ascendancy of the Town
7. The Degradation of the Soil
8. The Village System
9. The Restoration of the Peasants
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