Modern Asian Studies


Philosophy and Reality in Riparian South Asia: British Famine Policy and Migration in Colonial North India

Christopher V. Hilla1

a1 Lock Haven University of Pennsylvania1

The assumption of the passive peasant in Indian history has been existent at least since the time of Max Weber, and continues to return, phoenix-like in its appearance, every few decades. Its importance, however, lies in the responses the generality spawns. Morris D. Morris refuted Max Weber's thesis, detailed in The Religions of India, in 1967, while Barrington Moore, Jr.'s Social Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy was aptly rebutted by Kathleen Gough in 1974. Since then, the concept of the rational peasant, particularly during colonial times, has undergone a metamorphosis. Various modes of peasant dynamics have been amply demonstrated in recent works, stepping into the realms of peasant rebellion, desertion, banditry, and the like. Of particular import, in terms of peasant consciousness, has been the rise of the ‘Subaltern School’ of study. Beginning with Ranajit Guha's seminal work, Elementary Aspects of Peasant Insurgency in Colonial India, and continuing with volumes of articles by a variety of authors, the Subaltern Studies group has attempted, in their own words, to offer an alternative to historical writing ‘that fails to acknowledge, far less interpret, the contributions made by the people on their own, that is independently of the elite.…’ These scholars thus use the term subaltern for those social groups which they believe have been ignored through the course of history.


1 Portions of this paper were first presented at the Western Regional Conference for the Association of Asian Studies, Park City, Utah, October 1986; it was refined during a National Endowment for the Humanities Summer Seminar on ‘Environment and History: The American West.’ I wish to thank Donald Worster, Anand Yang, and Frank Conlon for their valuable comments.

The research upon which this paper is based was assisted by grants from the American Institute of Indian Studies, and the Joint Committee on South Asia of the Social Science Research Council and the American Council of Learned Societies with funds provided by the Ford Foundation and the National Endowment for the Humanities.