It is an odd coincidence that we are condoling the deaths of two scholars who so much shaped our understanding of Indian history and contemporary economic development, Prof. Ram Sharan Sharma who died at the ripe old age of 91 and Prof. R.S. Rao who died at the age of 72 in recent months. Prof. Sharma spent a lifetime understanding the historical evolution of what he called Indian Feudalism and Prof. Rao worked on how ‘feudalism’ or ‘semi-feudalism’ played a critical role in defining the post-independence Indian economy and polity. Even though both of them were in some ways aligned to the political parties of their choice, they retained a critical distance from them and promoted a tradition of concrete research, debate and criticism. R.S. Sharma was considered close to CPI while RS Rao was close to CPI (Maoist). The point is not to list similarities and differences between these two scholars but to underline their deep humanist commitment and concern for the toiling and oppressed people, something which is rapidly being eroded in the academic world.
Prof. Ram Sharan Sharma who was born in a small village of Bihar went to London to do his doctoral research and typically chose a theme which was off-beat in his time – Sudras in Ancient India. The Sudras were the last of the Varna hierarchy who were expected to serve and obey the other three orders. He studied an impressive range of sources ranging from obscure Sanskrit texts, inscriptions and archaeological evidence to arrive at an understanding of the outlines of ancient Indian history within which he located the position of the Sudras.
He decisively demonstrated that the category of Sudra – which initially connoted manual workers and craftspersons collectively controlled by the Vedic tribes, went through a number of fundamental transformations and eventually came to denote the vast mass of peasantry subordinated to different kinds of landlordism. From the Vedic period itself the Sudras were actively excluded from community rituals and access to power and resources and their subordination to the higher Varnas was being clearly established. The role of Sudras changed in the following phase of state formation in the lower Gangetic Valley from the 6th Century BCE to the 2nd B CE. They could count among themselves a large number of slaves and landless labourers besides craftspersons. The state which was emerging rapidly in this phase sought direct control over the labour of the sudras and settle them as highly controlled peasant populations. Prof . Sharma sought to establish that with the close of the second century BCE, Indian society reached a watershed in which the old tribal social order was replaced by a new urbanised social order in which trade and mobility induced by trade ruled the day. This led to a perception of deep social crises by the older elites – which got crystallised in the theory of onset of Kal Age or the Dark Ages. This perception obviously comes primarily from the Brahmanic sources which were deeply disturbed by the collapse of the old world and the emergence of heterodox sects as the principal recipients of patronage of the royalty and the rich. Heightened social mobility meant that the category of Sudras too underwent change and diversification as many Sudras climbed the social ladder to become kings, office holders and propertied persons. The succeeding period according to Sharma saw the transformation of the category of Sudras to include the peasantry in the main.
By way of conclusion Prof Sharma says,
‘sudras supplied surplus labour as slaves, artisans, and agricultural labourers; from Gupta times onwards they supplied surplus produce as peasants and supplemented it with occasional forced labour. Since the social fabric of ancient India was based on the vaisya tax and the sudra labour, it may be called a vaisya sudra society but from the ideological and ritualistic point of view it may be called a brahmanical society.’
Prof Sharma through this work demonstrated the complexity of the problem of the evolution of the position of the labouring people in ancient India and developed a very nuanced and differentiated enunciation of the subject contrary to the practice of writing undifferentiated accounts of the ‘oppression of the labouring masses.’ He focussed not only on the issue of economic stratification and surplus extraction, but also upon ritual exclusion and disempowering of the Sudras.
Prof. Sharma followed this with his seminal work on Indian Feudalism in which he outlined the development of landlordism and subjection of peasantry to various forms of subjection and exploitation. This has been a subject of much debate and discussion in Indian academia. It is necessary to differentiate between the theoretical framework which Prof Sharma used to describe the phenomenon of peasant subjection, and the essential characteristics of this subjection which he brought to the fore. Using the West European notions of feudalism and transplanting them to Indian context was highly problematic. Especially since the framework he was using came from Henri Pirenne who had argued that feudalism was a consequence of the decline of long distance trade and urbanism and that feudalism declined once long distance trade revived and urban centres sprang up. This framework was also the subject of much debate and criticism in the famous Dobb-Sweezy debate and the subsequent debate initiated by Robert Brenner. Prof Sharma used this framework to argue that with the decline of long distance trade urban centres too decayed (a point he sought to reinforce through a separate monograph on the subject collating archaeological and literary evidences from across the country). There was a ruralisation of economy society and polity with self sufficient village economy. Feudalism arose under such conditions where taxes could not be paid in cash and control over the peasants had to be established in the locality and surplus extracted in the form of labour and produce through a direct use of force.
Prof. Sharma’s framework runs to both theoretical and empirical problems. Firstly categories like serfdom, fiefdom, manor, did not just exist in India however much Prof Sharma tried to demonstrate their existence. Secondly Sharma himself realises that the social order premised on low trade came to an end by 10th and 12th centuries. Thus his ‘feudalism’ declined by the end of the twelfth century without giving rise to capitalism. So the nagging question remained as to what succeeded the feudal social order.
The problem of the framework should not detract us from the fact that he focussed attention squarely on the mode of exploitation of the peasantry once peasant production within the village community became an established norm. This is something most historians of India shied away from.
Prof. Sharma returned to his earlier theme of study in the 1980s as a more mature Marxist historian in his important work ‘Material Life and Social Formations’. This work can really be classed as one his best works of history which deftly combined archaeology, anthropology and critical reading of ancient literary texts. He sought to establish the material basis of the social formation, in terms of the processes and technology of production in their geographic setting, He sought to link the transition from pastoral tribalism to settled agriculture and urbanisation and state formation in early India to the changes in the production process and technology. His main interest remains on the emerging stratification and differentiation in the society and its impact on both production and power relations. This book too has been a subject of debate though not as lively a debate as his book on feudalism generated.
One major drawback of Prof. Sharma’s work as a historian is to have ignored the fact that Indian sub-continent had in it diverse societies that were in different forms of historical evolution and they were shaping each other through an active interaction. This understanding which was so central to D.D. Kosambi somehow escaped Prof .Sharma’s overall approach to Indian history. As a result he could imagine one common history for the entire sub-continent.
Prof. Sharma’s history writing has been deeply imbued with a sense of empathy with the labouring people and his principal questions arise from their plight and he sought to delineate their travails over time. To do this he did not resort to simple sloganeering and easy reading of the sources to cull evidences of oppression and exploitation. Instead he chose to use rigorous methods of enquiry using a very wide range of sources and using his critical method to assess the quality of the sources and then working out the complexity of the real situation. If he used theoretical frameworks that were ill-suited for the purpose we need to realise that he allowed his sources to speak a rich and complex multiglossic language in his books and did not allow the theoretical framework to silence them. Re-reading his classic books after discounting the theoretical framework is a hugely rewarding exercise.
Prof. Sharma did not confine himself to research and teaching in the university. He was also a publicist who actively intervened in the social debates that drew upon Indian history. He was in the forefront of the struggle against right-wing obscurantism promoted by the RSS. He wrote highly readable and authoritative text books for high school classes on ancient Indian history. These were subject of much criticism from the right wing for exposing the fissures and cleavages in the glorified Indian past. He was active against the distortion of historical evidences to buttress the movement to demolish Babri Masjid in Ayodhya and wrote much on this problem for the popular press never compromising upon the historical veracity of his position.
A major theme which he initiated in school history teaching was to change the periodisation Indian history into Hindu, Muslim and British periods. His work sought to establish that the so called Hindu period was indeed a combination of many distinct social stages from tribalism to Empire formation to feudalism. He sought to replace it with a new nomenclature of ancient, medieval and modern periods in which the medieval did not begin with the establishment of Delhi Sultanate but with the establishment of the feudal social order.
If he was active against right-wing politics he was equally critical of the vacillating centrism of the Congress. In fact he presided over the Indian History Congress session in 1975 which passed a resolution condemning the declaration of state of Emergency in India by Mrs. Gandhi, precisely when the CPI was seen supporting her. The Indian History Congress was the only professional body of academics which condemned the Emergency unequivocally.
Prof. Sharma’s role as an institution builder for teaching and writing of history is a mixed one. His commitment to professional research was to a large extent compromised by his devotion to his students and followers who were not always equally committed to the profession. Instead of broadening the base of historical research and publishing in India the institutions he headed tended to become narrowly focussed on a particular line of thinking. He headed the nascent Indian Council of Historical Research and many other such institutions like the Departments of History in Patna and Delhi Universities.
Prof. R.S. Rao was in contrast a very different person. He chose to shift to a very remote university town in Sambhalpur in Odisha when he completed his initial studies in the Gokhale Institute in Pune. He chose to teach students from rural and tribal backgrounds and address economic research issues thrown up by deprived regions like Kalahandi and Telangana and the regions that were drowned in the big dams and other such development projects. He was one of the early economists who drew attention to the fact that those who were being called upon to sacrifice their lands for development projects like the Hirakud dam, Rourkela, Salandi, Baliapal, were the greatest losers in the development regime. Recalling Nehru’s oft quoted phrase that the dams are the temples of modern India, Prof. Rao poignantly wrote in a report , ‘Yes, they are the modern temples. Like the old temples which forbade entry for the poor and low caste people, the modern temples too forbade the entry of the poor.’ (R.S. Rao, Towards Understanding Semi Feudal Semi Colonial Society, Hyderabad, 1995, p. 220.) He did an extensive review of the plight of the tribal people who had been made to sacrifice their precious lands for these projects. He wrote, ‘paying homage to the anonymous dead in the Salahandi project and to all those who died as a result of this kind of development, it is pertinent to ask a question – whether all this is inevitable…. In post independence India... development for a large majority becomes essentially, rehabilitation. Rehabilitation, not just of the displaced but of the rural poor as a whole as a part of one of the anti poverty programmes.' (ibid., page 172).
Prof. Rao had an abiding interest in the agrarian situation in India. He rued the fact that while data collection processes like the Farm Management Survey collected data for the more developed regions they generally tended to ignore the backward and undeveloped regions like Rayalaseema and Telangana. Even though he was convinced that semi-feudal relations were being sustained in Indian agriculture he was keenly aware of the growing process of stratification and expansion of the capitalist sector in agriculture. His highly nuanced study of this problem has remained ignored and is worth recalling here.
‘In the Indian context, it is not just the lack of a democratic process and the corresponding institutions but capital’s use of the pre capitalist processes and institutions like religion, caste, region, hierarchy, that merit ones attention... It is not that factory inspectors need to be appointed but that they have to be above caste considerations.... Capital, when it frees labour, gives anonymity to labour. But capital in the Indian context takes away anonymity and puts the labels of religion, caste, and creed. The resulting process is the division among the working class and the division among poor peasants and agricultural labourers, on an extra economic basis…. Capital exists without its corresponding superstructure. Hence we have capital without capitalism.’ (ibid., p. 89)
After an extensive study of the data generated by the Farm Management Surveys and reviewing the debates among economists on the extent and nature of capitalist development in Indian agriculture, R.S. Rao concluded that there was a widespread non-capitalist sector in which productivity and investment seemed to bear an inverse relation to the size of the holding – thus the larger the holding the lower its efficiency and accumulation. This he attributed to the feudal agrarian relation. On the other hand the capitalist sector identified, not through the size of the holding but through the labour hiring criterion broke this inverse relation between holding size and capitalist productivity. ‘Given a high level of commodity production leading to a dominant position of capitalism in agriculture, the inverse relationship gives way to a positive relationship. Further it was observed that in such a village the process of differentiation reaches a high level. The above clearly suggests the existence and further the exploitative efficiency of capitalism in Indian agriculture.’ (ibid., p, 54)
RS Rao’s main work though done before the onset of neo-liberal reforms still has a lot of relevance and importance for those engaged in understanding the nature of Indian capitalism and the direction of the mass movements.
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