Canadian Journal of Sociology Online March - April 2000

Hira Singh
Colonial Hegemony and Popular Resistance: Princes, Peasants, and Paramount Power.

Toronto: Canadian Scholars' Press, 1998. $24.95 cloth (1551301253)

This important work is introduced by Andre Beteille, a colleague of Hira Singh's at the Delhi School, with the comment that Dr. Singh has produced a "combative book in which few intellectuals who crossed his path, whether from the left or the right, are spared." Indeed, this is a controversial book. It mainly concerns the agrarian systems in the major princely states in what is now Rajasthan. We are given a glimpse into the class structure of pre-capitalist princely states where the durbars ruled through landlords known as thikanedars. We are given a study which could be titled "Lord and Peasant in Rajasthan" but that would be misleading if anyone expected a conventional Marxist account. Singh argues that the kisans, the peasants, have been active in changing their situation. The central theme of the book is the idea - suggested by Richard Lee of the University of Toronto - that the dynamics of colonial "social formations" can best be understood through attention to resistance and struggle. The "reaction from below" and "reaction from above" are presented in a finely meshed analysis which does not readily fit into any of the established intellectual paradigms. Singh, for example, critiques Neo-Marxist World Systems Theory (WST). The book is not merely an abstract intellectual enterprise; one can feel that Singh is writing with intensity about a problematic that has genuinely caught his imagination.

Particularly interesting is the discussion of the nature of "feudalism" in India. In his conclusion he seems to accept the notion that the princely states were "feudal" rather than "tribal" but he does not examine other possible ideal type models of pre-colonial, pre-capitalist independent states. The Asiatic Mode of Production is mentioned, but only in passing (p. 124), as part of Singh's critique of Mukhia (1981, 1985). The empirical evidence for degrees of "internal dynamics" is not carefully assessed through a detailed comparison of the implications of different class models. While Weber's Agrarian Sociology of Ancient Civilizations (1976 [1909]) is listed, no other work by Weber is discussed and Weber's important contribution to the study of social class in India is ignored. Fred Riggs' (Thailand) and Clifford Geertz's (Indonesia) Indic models are not mentioned at all, despite the polemical statements against Eurocentrism and colonialist perspectives. (Is Riggs or Geertz really so Eurocentric when they present models of Indic states that are quite different from European feudalism?) More attention could have been paid by Singh to the relative merits of different models. Instead, he tends to denounce all other efforts other than his own. He even critiques Subaltern studies for not allowing for enough "agency" on the part of the peasantry.

What is particularly good about this book is the level of detail that can be found. For example, we are not just told that the kisans were in principle "free to move" as long as they paid a tax to the landlord of the area they were leaving. We are also informed that in times of famine the durbar might actually encourage the peasants to move. The idiographic detail of Rajasthani class relations is preserved through the frequent use of technical terms such as "hal lag" (a punitive plough tax) and "bohra" ( a moneylender). Singh uses archival materials to good intent and there is a great deal of historical information that could be useful regardless of which paradigm or model one has in mind.

The main criticism that should probably be made is the somewhat facile manner in which Singh assumes that his use of the evidence is exactly correct for the rather complex, idiosyncratic model he puts forward. He makes the worthy general methodological point that concrete historical information should precede over-reliance on abstract paradigms. He is at his best when he critiques the theoretical "failures" of others. For example, he critiques Frank (1973), Alavi (1982) and Banaji (1975) for not taking the pre-colonial, pre-capitalist structures that remained (especially in the princely states) more seriously and attributing too much agency to colonialism and a "dualistic" or "colonial" Mode of Production. He is certainly correct to point out that at times such models are over-simplified and that we need to examine concrete historical situations. However, when he develops his own model of resistance and struggle it is not clear which political economy assumptions he is willing to accept a priori and which statements are generalizations which have emerged inductively from the historical information.

In sum, this is a valuable, polemical contribution to an important topic that will interest not only those with a specific historical interest in Rajasthan but also those who continue to try to comprehend that shifting field of study which concerns economic and social development and change. It would be useful recommended reading in a graduate seminar on peasant movements, social change or imperialism.

J. I. (Hans) Bakker, Ph.D.
Dept. of Sociology and Anthropology
University of Guelph

March-April 2000
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