Thursday, March 21, 2013

The Village Republic

Via Reginald Reynolds, “The White Sahibs in India” (1937) we obtain the following:

….a great British administrator, Sir Charles Metcalfe, who afterwards became Acting Governor-General of India, wrote as follows concerning the last surviving Village Communities, which yet remain in 1830 in Northern India:

{Minutes,  November 7, 1830 – a fuller quote from The Life and Correspondence of Charles, Lord Metcalfe,  by John William Kaye (1858) Volume 2, page 76} 

….I admire the structure of the village communities, and am apprehensive that direct engagements for revenue with each separate landholder or cultivator in a village, might tend to destroy its constitution. 
 “The village communities are little republics, having nearly everything they want within themselves, and almost independent of any foreign relations.   They seem to last where nothing else does.   Dynasty after dynasty tumbles down.   Revolution succeeds to revolution.  Hindoo, Patan, Mogul, Mahratta, Sikh, English, are all masters in turn, but the village communities remain the same. 
 “In times of trouble they arm and fortify themselves. An hostile army passes through the country.  The village communities collect their cattle within their walls, and let the enemy pass unprovoked.  If plunder and devastation be directed against themselves, and the force employed be irresistible, they flee to friendly villages at a distance, but when the storm has passed over they return and resume their occupations.  If a country remain for a series of years the scene of continued pillage and massacre, so that the villages cannot be inhabited, the scattered villagers nevertheless return whenever the power of peacable possession revives.   A generation may pass away, but the succeeding generation will return.  The sons will take the places of their fathers—the same site for the village, the same positions for the houses, the same lands will be re-occupied by the descendants of those who were driven out when the village was depopulated; and it is not a trifling matter that will drive them out, for they will often maintain their post through times of disturbance and convulsion, and acquire their strength sufficient to resist pillage and oppression with success. 
 “This union of the village communities, each one forming a separate little state in itself, has, I conceive, contributed more than any other cause to the preservation of the people of India,  through all the revolutions and changes which they have suffered and is in a high degree conducive to their happiness and to the enjoyment of a great portion of freedom and independence. 
 “I wish, therefore, that the village constitutions may never be disturbed, and I dread everything that had a tendency to break them up.  I am fearful that a revenue settlement, separately with each individual cultivator, as is the practice in the Ryotwar Settlement, instead of one with the village community, through their representatives the head men, might have such a tendency.  For this reason, and for this only, I do not desire to see the Ryotwar Settlement generally introduced into the Western Provinces.”

What does a modern writer say about this?
In “Society in India: Change and Continuity” (1970), David Goodman Mandelbaum writes:

The standard quotation, often reprinted, on the Indian village as a monolithic, atomistic, unchanging entity is from a report by Sir Charles Metcalfe, one of the founding administrators of British rule in India.  The passage begins, “The village communities are little republics, having nearly everything they want within themselves and almost independent of any foreign relations.”  It goes on to tell that wars pass over it, regimes come and go, but the village as a society always emerges unchanged, unshaken, and self-sufficient.

 Later writers of considerable influence, among them Sir Henry Maine, Karl Marx, and Mahatma Gandhi, reiterated this idea, and suggested that the village was so perduring because it was so self-sufficient.

 When modern field studies came to be made, however, they showed quite a different situation. An Indian village typically is hardly a republic; it has certainly changed from time to time; and it clearly was not and is not self-sufficient.  The whole nature of traditional society militated against the independent isolation of a village.  In earlier days there was a good deal of coming and going among villages, even though roads were poor and travel dangerous.  Marriage affiliations were commonly made between families of different villages, and each marriage would set in train a lifetime of visiting between the two families by the married couple and at least another generation of such visiting by their children.

 Such visiting still continues, as do other long-standing reasons for frequent movement among villages.  Economic needs send people in and out of the village. Few villages have a complete roster of resident specialists.  Senapur, near Banares, has twenty-four jatis, but a family requires services provided by from thirty-five to forty jatis.   So there is a constant movement for work and trade.   Each local area is a kind of labor pools; some villages in it utilize the surplus labor of others; villages with special skills circulate through the locality. Certain services are available only in the nearest towns. Bricklayers and lime-workers, goldsmiths and coppersmiths, florists and genealogists tend now to be found in towns or larger villages.

 Markets are a major reason for travel within a locality.  It is a rare place where no one is outward bound for market weekly, unless the village is itself the seat of a market concourse.  A good many villages have been involved in an interregional market economy for centuries, producing crops that were transported across regions and states.
 There are also the religious attractions of other places.  A village ceremony may bring visitors from hundreds of other villages.  In every region there are holy places to which people go on fixed days or at any time when impelled by a pressing need.  And there is the magnetic pull of the great centers of pilgrimage which draw millions yearly.

 ….Villages are closely bound into a larger social sphere and have long been so joined….Just as a villager is bound to many other people with multiple strands—deal with one person and processions of others follow—so his village is linked by many ties to other villages, towns, cities. A village is not a neatly separable social and conceptual package but it is nonetheless a fundamental social unit.

 ….When a man goes outside his village, he is apt to be identified first of all by his village rather than by jati or other reference category.

 …The immediate judges and enforcers of jati ranking are the people of one’s village.  They follow the standards of the reigion and the civilization and will not depart too widely from these norms.   Nonetheless, it is they who perform the acts and give the opinions that place a person’s jati in a particular local niche.   As we have seen, this varies from locality to locality.   Thus in Bisipara village the washermen are ranked among the clean jatis, but in the neighboring Boad territory, in the same district of Orissa, they are considered untouchables.

 There may also be certain differences in rank assignment from village to village in the same close locality…The author comments that a man going across the boundary to another village automatically sheds his status as a resident of his own village and can conform to the commensal rules of the host village.  In this respect “the village is very much a reality” (Mayer 1960, pp. 49, 159).
Clearly, something I have to read fully. :)

Mandelbaum also gives a more complete citation to Charles Metcalfe’s minute:
Metcalfe, Charles T, 1833, Appendix 84 to the report of the Select Committee of the House of Commons on the affairs of the East India Company. III-Review, pp. 328-334. Minute on the Upper Provinces, London 1833. (House of Commons sessional papers 1831-32. XI, superscribed enumeration pp. 692-698.)