Preface to Book

This is the preface of Becoming India: Western Himalayas during British Rule, my book, being published by Foundation Books, New Delhi (the Indian arm of Cambridge University Press). It is based on a reworked version of my PhD which I received from the Centre for Historical Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi in 2002.



In August, 1990, when V.P. Singh, the Prime Minister of India announced the partial implementation of the Mandal Commission recommendations, large scale student protests erupted in many campuses of North India. These protests challenged the move to reserve a chunk of government jobs for candidates from, what were called, the “Other Backward Classes” (OBCs), based on the recommendations of the Mandal Commission. While these student protestors received much support from the urban middle classes of North India, no political party came out in formal support, nor did any institution of the State or Government. This was primarily because the OBCs represented the large mass of agriculturalists, artisans and rural service providers – the Shudras according to Hindu caste hierarchy. More often than not a clear demographic majority in any given geographical region. In a context of universal suffrage, it would have been electoral suicide to oppose a move which purportedly benefited them.

Except in Himachal Pradesh. The Himachal Pradesh Government seemed to fly in the face of such basic political logic and filed a petition in the Supreme Court challenging the implementation of these OBC reservations. These reservations also evoked strong protests in the neighbouring regions of Garhwal and Kumaon and fed into their long standing demand for a State separate from OBC dominated Uttar Pradesh. What was striking was that in these Himalayan regions, the muscle of the anti-reservation protests was provided by the agriculturalists. It was perhaps the only part of India where one could say with some certainty that a majority of the people opposed reservation.

The open and strong support from all political parties in Himachal to this agitation against OBC reservations was attributed by the media, and much of academia, to some form of popular indignation based on moral and political principles and against an assault on “merit”.

My first research interest into the social history of the Himalayas began at this time, when I felt that such explanations were, at best, puerile.

Most of my childhood and adolescence was spent in Shimla. Through my college and university years, Shimla became for me an idyll to which I retreated from the heat and dust of Delhi. Its pleasant weather, forest draped mountains, quaint English cottages and childhood memories had obviated any critical look at its history or society. The agitations opposing the Mandal Commission recommendations forced the first rupture in my romantic notions about the Himalayas.

Looking back at my years in school in Shimla, I realised that there were no Himachali OBCs in my class. In fact, I could not recall any Himachali OBC friend or neighbour. That made me sit up. On enquiry, I was told that in most parts of the Western Himalayas the social composition was bereft of Shudra castes. Apart from the Scheduled Castes, there are only Brahmins, Rajputs and Vaishya castes[1]!

The popular history of the region states that the people in the Western Himalayas descended from the Aryan tribe of the Khash and that this origin explains their uniform upper-caste status. Those who were classified as the Scheduled Castes, were supposed descendents of pre-Aryan groups, now referred to as the Nagas. Further, I was told about the many struggles waged by this Khash peasantry against Begar imposed on them by the Hill States and the British. The stories of these struggles are still alive in popular memory and are intertwined with the memory of the struggle for independence.

A few years later, when I had to work on a seminar paper for my Masters in the university, I decided to study the colonial history of the Western Himalayas. My initial foray at studying the history of the region was on a form of forced, unfree labour (Beth) prevalent in that area. I began my doctoral researches with the intention of broadening the scope of this initial foray into the history of the region by studying the entire gamut of social relations and agricultural practices which supported the different forms of unfree and forced labour I had been able to identify during my seminar paper. If my initial researches into the social formations of the region had shaken my romantic vision of these mountains, which I shared with numerous others, my doctoral research delineated the obstacles, daunting like the high mastiffs of the Himalayas, to writing the history of this region.

The first problem I faced was a paucity of secondary sources on the history of the region which would have helped me place my research into the perspective of a larger debate. The one and only researched history of the region, on which I could bank for verifiable accounts, had been written in 1933 and covered regions to the west of the Simla Hill States[2]. Apart from this there was one work on the history of resistance to forest laws in Garhwal and Kumaon[3] and a handful of Ph.D.[4] and M.Phil. theses available in the library of the Himachal Pradesh University. The only secondary sources available in abundance were the anecdotal histories and accounts of Simla as a town of colonial trivia and sundry European charms. I was warned by a historian friend of mine, who was in the midst of his own researches into the Western Himalayas, that trying to work on the history of the region was like floating on a rudderless raft in a sea without even a compass for guidance.

Apart from the lack of proper sources to write a full scale account of the history of unfree labour in the Western Himalayas, I came up against conceptual barriers too.

I am no apologist for unfree labour, and there are enough sources to indicate the opposition to such labour by the region’s peasantry. But it seemed to me that unfree labour in the Western Himalayas was linked as closely to reciprocal labour as it was to the commonly understood form of servile unfree labour. Further, this unfree labour was located inside the matrices of the polyandrous Himalayan family, the egalitarian clans and imperfect Hill States, all subsumed under the overarching structure of colonialism. Sociological and historical literature on India under colonialism seemed to provide diminishing conceptual clarity the deeper I delved into the social history of the Western Himalayas. Not only had the Western Himalayas never been a political part of any Indian entity throughout history, there was a clearly discernable sociological gap between the plains of North India and this region.

I realised that to write a contextualised history of unfree labour in the Western Himalayas, I would need to understand the local dynamics of social and economic transformations during the colonial period separate from the general history of India under colonialism. It was through this effort that I finally decided to shift the focus of my research from unfree labour under colonial conditions to a mapping of the colonial encounter in the region by foregrounding its exceptionalism and focussing primarily on transformative processes.

While the thesis mapped out the broad history of the Western Himalayas, this book takes the argument further. The thesis traced the history of the region from the time of its conquest by the British in 1815 till the coming of political independence in 1947. In its somewhat ambitious attempt to study the consequences of colonial rule in the Western Himalayas over a period about 132 years my doctoral thesis treaded lightly on the historical ground, surveying the field and marking the signposts for future study, rather than delving deep into any single issue.

This book takes bases itself on my doctoral research to but takes my argument further in two significant ways. It questions the implicit historical unity of the geographical space we call India today. By foregrounding the distance of the Western Himalayas from the rest of India at the beginning of the colonial encounter, it argues for a more nuanced history of colonial India. India was a product of the processes unleashed by colonialism, and different regions—like the Western Himalayas—which constituted India at the culmination of the colonial encounter each had specific histories of their colonial encounter. These specificities need to be studied independently of any general history of Indian colonialism and not merely as a sub-set of that general history. Hence the title of this book.

This brings me to the second departure this book makes from my doctoral thesis. It argues that such a particularist reading of the history of the Western Himalayas would suggest that the colonial encounter here was non-cataclysmic, unlike for much of the Indian sub-continent. This is not some lame-duck attempt at revival of the historiography of colonial apologia. It is not an argument regarding the intentions of the British rulers nor does it claim credit for colonialism for whatever beneficial consequences there may have been as an outcome of this encounter. What it argues is that given the geographical, social and economic contexts of the Western Himalayas, colonialism did not introduce a sudden rupture in the economic or political life of the people as it did in most other places. This non-cataclysmic nature of the colonial encounter in the Western Himalayas then had a significant bearing on the way in which the Himalayan people responded to its transformative processes. It is a result of these that the desolate, foreboding and violent social geography of the Western Himalayas emerged as the touristy idyll at the conclusion of the colonial encounter.

This book, therefore, is not a general history of the colonial period in the Western Himalayas. Rather it narrates the story of the transformation of the social formation of the Western Himalayas during the period of British rule. It focuses on the basin of the Sutlej river for its narrative. Complimentary evidence and sources are taken from the two neighbouring river valleys of the Beas and the Tons.

The first chapter lays out the nature of the region’s geography and how it impacted on the pre-British social formation. The second chapter studies in some detail the economic, political and sociological features which constituted this social formation. Chapter three takes a close look at the foundations of British rule in the region and the impact they had on the extant social formation. Chapter four surveys a series of peasant rebellions over a century to identify the changes in ideology and political practice of the peasantry and chapter five looks at the indicators of this changing social formation. The final chapter details how the processes unleashed by British rule finally played themselves out at the twilight of independence as the Himalayan peasant constituted himself into a member of the Indian nation.

As I have mentioned above, this book is the culmination of a long process of discovery and I have accumulated intellectual and personal debts too many to fully recount and acknowledge. I must begin by acknowledging the academic guidance provided by my doctoral supervisor, Prof. K. N. Panikkar who gave me the space to pursue divergent ideas which have finally blossomed to form the core arguments of this book.

My father, Javeed Alam, provided the initial inputs which started me off on this journey of discovering the Western Himalayas. Mohar Singh provided innumerable insights and has always been a ready bank of information and ideas for me to draw on. Chetan Singh, with his easy charm, helped me find my feet in the world of Himalayan history. Their ideas and inputs lie scattered throughout this book and are too numerous to fully footnote.

Sumit Sarkar, Hari Sen, Kumaresh Chakravarty, Emma Flatt, Tanika Sarkar and the late Ravinder Kumar read many of the drafts. Their comments and criticisms have been crucial to both strengthening the arguments of this book as well as for providing much needed encouragement. I must thank Vasudha Pande for sharing her experiences of research on the Western Himalayas and introducing me to L.D. Joshi’s work. Kaushik Dasgupta not only read the entire draft of both the Ph.D. thesis and this book, but also gave valuable editorial advice.

The research on the thesis took me to various libraries and archives and I would like to thank the staff of the JNU library, the Nehru Memorial Library, the H.P. State Archives, the H.P. Secretariat library, the H.P. University library, the National Archives of India, the British Library’s Oriental and India Office Collection, the SOAS library, the library of the South Asia Centre, Cambridge and the library of the Asiatic Society of Bengal.

The Senior Research Fellowship of the University Grants Commission made it possible for me to pursue my Ph.D. and I record my thanks for their help. I also thank the generosity of the Indian Council for Social Science Research who financed my air ticket to London which enabled me to refer to documents housed in the Oriental and India Office collection of the British Library.

Often I have wondered whether I ‘wasted’ my time while I was busy with SFI work and if not for that, whether I may have completed the thesis and this book much earlier. But, today when I look back at my years in JNU, I am sure that my political associations, the vibrant political atmosphere and academic culture of the University have been important contributors to my academic interests and intellectual development. The University has not only provided some enduring friendships and political associations, it has also moulded me as a person. All the late nights, the arguments and discussions, the endless cups of tea and the fun we have had together are embodied in the following pages. A big thanks to all my comrades and friends. I must also acknowledge the fine academic atmosphere provided by the Centre for Historical Studies, JNU from where I pursued my research.

My wife Manjari has been a constant friend and companion during my research and writing. Her constant support, encouragement and affection, not to mention editing and discussions, have added greatly to my work. My parents have put in so much of their emotional energy into my research that it seems too formal to merely thank them and I don’t have the words to express all that I have to say. Not only my parents but also my grandparents have always stood behind me in all that I have done and together they have provided me with the confidence and strength to pursue my academic and other interests. My daughter, Sara Aparajita, is too little to know that her father has finally finished his book. I only hope that when she eventually gets to read it, she would feel it worthy of her father!

[1] Actually this is true only of the higher mountainous areas which in Himachal Pradesh are commonly referred to as “Upper Himachal”. The social composition of the sub-montane regions and lower Shiwaliks (like Kangra and Hamirpur districts of Himachal, or the Doon area of Uttarakhand) is somewhat different and one does find the presence of some OBCs there.

[2] Hutchison, J. and Vogel, J. Ph., History of Punjab Hill States, 2 Vols. Lahore, 1933.

[3] Ramchandra Guha, The Unquiet Woods: Ecological Change and Peasant Resistance in the Himalaya, Delhi, 1989

[4] Mohan Singh Rathore, Nineteenth Century Cis-Sutlej Hill States, H.P. University, Simla, 1987, (unpublished Ph.D. thesis).


One thought on “Preface to Book

  1. Rohit

    well, i am Rohit, belonging to Shimla and would want to benefit from your research on the origin of the Khash of Himachal. Rohit


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