The role of peasantry in historical context

The role of peasantry in historical context

This article is pegged on the current wheat crisis. Peasants remain an exploited sector of the society. Over time there has been a gradual erosion of awareness regarding the intensity of their exploitation. The first part of this article examines the indifference of the ruling elite despite its recognition by prominent scholars. The attention then shifts to notable peasant movements across South Asia.

Peasantry has played a crucial role in the advancement of civilisations, particularly in India as highlighted by scholars like RS Sharma and DD Kosambi. Both these historians have underscored the significance of agrarian communities in shaping the socio-economic fabric of ancient India.

Sharma has emphasised the pivotal role of peasantry in the emergence of early states and urban centres, highlighting their contribution to agricultural production and surplus generation, which facilitated the growth of trade and urbanisation. Sharma’s analysis emphasises how the surplus generated by peasant labour was systematically extracted by the ruling classes through mechanisms such as land grants, taxation and forced labour obligations. This appropriation of surplus not only enriched the ruling elites but also perpetuated socio-economic inequalities, contributing to the consolidation of their power.

Kosambi’s Marxist interpretation delves into the intricate relationship between the peasantry and the ruling elites, elucidating how agrarian structures influenced class dynamics and political power structures. He argues that the ruling elites, comprising landlords, kings and priests, systematically exploited the peasantry to maintain their privileged status and uphold the existing power structures.

Kosambi’s analysis delves into the mechanisms of surplus extraction, highlighting how the peasantry was subjected to oppressive land rent, taxes and other forms of exploitation, leading to widespread impoverishment and social unrest.

French historian, Marc Bloch, emphasised the vital economic role of peasants in feudal society as primary producers of food and goods, sustaining themselves and their lords through their labour on the land. Within the complex social hierarchy, peasants experienced varying degrees of freedom and autonomy, with distinctions between free peasants and serfs bound to the land. Bloch’s analysis also delved into the intricate relationships between peasants and their feudal lords, revealing dynamics of authority, resistance, negotiation and collaboration between the two groups.

In essence, the peasantry in ancient India formed the backbone of the economy, providing sustenance and surplus that fuelled urbanisation, trade and the rise of complex societies. Their labour not only sustained the agrarian economy but also contributed to the social stratification and political dynamics of the era.

Both Sharma and Kosambi underscore the exploitative dynamics inherent in the relationship between the ruling elite and the peasantry, emphasising how the appropriation of surplus agrarian production served as a cornerstone of ancient Indian socio-economic and political systems. Understanding the role of peasantry is essential for comprehending the multifaceted nature of ancient Indian civilization and its evolution over time.

The peasantry, regarded as the fulcrum of agrarian societies, has played a pivotal role in shaping historical narratives, particularly in the context of transitions from feudalism to capitalism and resistance against colonial rule. Maurice Dobb, Irfan Habib and Hamza Alavi offer diverse yet complementary perspectives on the significance of the peasantry in historical processes and socio-political movements.

Integrating their ideas provides a comprehensive understanding of the multifaceted role played by peasant communities in shaping economies, societies and political landscapes over time.

Maurice Dobb, a British scholar from Cambridge University who looked at economics and history from a Marxist perspective, studied how peasant communities fit into societies before capitalism took hold and during the transition to capitalism. In simple terms, he explored the role of farmers in societies where there wasn’t much industry, and how things changed when industry became a big deal.

He pointed out how important farmers were in these olden days, especially in places where feudalism - a system where lords owned land and peasants worked it - was the norm. Farmers were the main stay of these societies, doing most of the work to produce food and other stuff needed by everyone.

As societies started changing into capitalist ones, where trade and industry were more important, farmers had to adapt. They faced challenges like having their land taken away or being forced to grow crops for profit instead of just for themselves. It is pertinent to mention that feudalism was based on the obligations and relations among the lords, vassals and fief, these three formed the basis of feudalism. In capitalism, however, the main goal is making more profit.

In the Indian context, Irfan Habib, historian and author of Agrarian System of the Mughals, wrote about how crucial farmers were in the Indian history. He stressed that farming was the main job for most people in India throughout its history, and farmers had a big say in how the society worked. They not only grew food but also shaped how villages and regions operated socially and economically.

When India was under British rule, farmers often stood up against unfair treatment, like heavy taxes and rules that hurt their livelihoods. They were key players in protests and movements against British colonialism, fighting for their rights and for India’s freedom.

Hamza Alavi looked specifically at how farmers resisted the British rule in South Asia. He talked about how the British set up a system where traditional farming ways coexisted with newer, more capitalist ways of doing things.

Alavi showed how the British took advantage of farmers, using policies and taxes to squeeze out as much profit as possible. He also highlighted how farmers fought back, not just for themselves but as part of a bigger struggle to force the British out. Movements led by farmers were important in the fight for independence.

The analyses of Maurice Dobb, Irfan Habib and Hamza Alavi converge on the central role of the peasantry in historical and socio-political contexts, spanning from pre-capitalist societies to colonial periods. Dobb’s examination of agrarian economies underscores the foundational significance of the peasantry, particularly under feudalism, where farmers formed the backbone of agricultural production.

His insights into the transition to capitalism illuminate the challenges faced by peasants, such as enclosures and commodification of agriculture, as they adapted to emerging capitalist markets.

Habib’s focus on Indian history further emphasises the seminal importance of the peasantry, highlighting their foundational role in India’s agrarian economy and their active participation in resistance against oppressive rulers, including British colonial administrators. He elucidates the intricate interactions between peasants, landlords and colonial powers, showcasing the peasantry’s agency in agrarian revolts and nationalist movements.

Alavi’s structural analysis of peasant resistance in the subcontinent provides additional depth, revealing the exploitative nature of colonial agrarian policies and the integral role of peasant movements in the broader anti-colonial struggle for national liberation. By identifying the dual economic structure of the colonial state, Alavi illuminates how traditional agrarian relations coexisted with capitalist modes of production, laying the groundwork for peasant resistance.

Integrating these perspectives, it becomes evident that the peasantry has been central to historical processes of agrarian change, capitalist transition and resistance against colonial oppression. Across various geographical contexts, peasants have exhibited resilience and agency in navigating socio-economic transformations and asserting their rights against oppressive forces. The legacies of peasant struggles continue to inform contemporary agrarian dynamics, with issues such as land reform, agrarian inequality and rural poverty persisting in post-colonial societies.

It goes without saying that understanding the historical significance of the peasantry is crucial for comprehending the complexity of socio-political landscape and informing efforts towards equitable rural development and social justice. The insights provided by Dobb, Habib and Alavi underscore the enduring importance of the peasantry in historical narratives and contemporary socio-political movements, enriching our understanding of the dynamic interplay between agrarian economies, colonialism and socio-political change.

(To be continued)

The writer is a professor in the faculty of Liberal Arts at the Beaconhouse National

University, Lahore

The role of peasantry in historical context