“Beth” in the Simla Hills

This is a seminar paper which I did in Jan-May 1994 as part of my course requirements for the MA in Modern Indian History at the Jawaharlal Nehru University. It is my first foray into researching the history of the Western Himalayas.

Unfortunately the version which survives with me is without footnotes. There were, if memory serves me right, more than a 100 footnotes to this paper, for which I spent a week in the Himachal Pradesh State archives as well as many days in the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library.

~ ~ ~


“Beth” in the Shimla Hills.


Unfree labour was central to agricultural production in pre-colonial India. Under colonial impact, these forms of unfree labour, while retaining their outward form, were radically changed in content. In medieval times, the subjects of the king were never `free’ as in the modern sense and all social classes and groups were linked to each other vertically and horizontally in ties of bondage, dependence and patronage. Under colonialism these ties got removed from their socio – economic context of origin and existence, and functioned differently in the new environment. It would be an attempt of this paper to see how and what changes were brought about in the institution of `Beth‘ – forced labour of unfree lower castes – in the Simla Hills under the impact of British rule.

Beth and its cousin category of Begar were forms of unfree labour of the agricultural castes. While the latter was given by practically every State subject for community and administrative works, the former was only given by the lowest castes to the higher castes and it usually took the form of semi-serf agricultural labour. When the British gained physical control of the Cis-Sutlej hills in 1815, they gave Sanads to the petty States of the region confirming their formal independence under British Paramountcy. These States, eighteen in all, were given almost complete independence in their internal matters. Begar was the only exaction of the colonial state from most of them in the absence of any proper tribute

There has been almost no attempt to study the agrarian economies, social structures and political institutions of the Western Himalayas except in the few ecology centered works on the region. Beth ( or other forms of the labour of the lowest castes ) has never been considered worthy of even the most preliminary study, though there have been one or two exceptions. Before we begin any discussion of unfree labour in the specificities of the Simla Hill States, it would be useful to place it in the wider context of unfree labour in colonial situations.

Unfree Labour in Colonial Conditions

Being generic to pre – modern economic regimes, an understanding of the function and importance of unfree labour in all its forms has been central to studies of medieval and ancient social formations. In modern societies, dominated as they are by `free’ wage labour, this has not been the case. The only exception to this pattern have been Marxist and other radical scholars for whom questions of unfree labour have more than academic interest. In the specific context of societies under colonial rule this question gains added importance since almost all of them experienced the continuation in a fossilised form of institutions of unfree labour, mostly under the general domination of metropolitan capital and control by imperial policy.

Historically the most studied and debated form of unfree labour has been `serfdom’ whose essence was defined by Rodney Hilton as

the transference to the use of the lord of the labour of the peasant family which was surplus to that needed for the family’s subsistence and economic reproduction.

or by Geoffrey de Ste Croix as

the tenure of land whereby the tenant is by law, custom and agreement bound to live and labour on land belonging to another person and render some determinate services to such other person, whether for reward or not, and is not free to change his status.

It would perhaps be useful for our argument to take note here of the distinction that Alan Knight (1988) makes between “forms of surplus labour” and ” mode of exploitation”. He looks at Latin American debt bondage and finds both aspects — slave and wage — hidden in it. Many forms of debt bondage ( which closely approximates the second definition of serfdom given above), were complex forms of wage labour and debt was a disguised form of wage. He, therefore, argues that one must be able to find an element of coercion beyond what is natural to `free’ wage labour before labeling it unfree in the sense of bonded labour.

Utsa Patnaik (1985) says that colonial India can also be classified as `feudal’ since an enserfed peasantry had to part with its surplus to a class of landlords who monopolise property in land. The forms of labour may be labour rent, kind rent and/or economic rent but the obligation to part with the surplus is based on extra – economic coercion. The major difference between Indian and Western feudalism that she identifies, is the presence in India of a large class of ritually landless agricultural labourers and menial workers who exist in hereditary servitude. These sections are not just servile to the landed gentry but even to the revenue paying middle caste peasant proprietors. In colonial India the surplus extracted from these sections was in reality appropriation of slave / labour rent and not profit. Thus the existence of landless labourers in agriculture was not an indication of the emergence of capitalism in agriculture ( as it was in Europe ) but precisely the continuance of a pre – capitalist social institution. With the growing pressure on land there was a corresponding increase in the number of landless agricultural labourers in colonial India and this indicates a pauperisation of the peasantry and not its proletarianisation (Patnaik 1985:4-5).

Along with this trend there was a growing demand for labour in plantations and in foreign countries as indentured labour, which cut at the roots of traditional servile labour. With the spread and universalisation of cash relations, traditional bondage was replaced by debt bondage which now included traditionally `free’ peasants in its ambit. Here Patnaik is arguing contrary to Dharma Kumar’s estimate that the number of landless labourers did not increase in the colonial period. Not only, it seems, did bonded landless labour increase, it also was transformed with the erosion of the paternalistic ties between master and bonded labourer.

Begar and Beth as Forms of Unfree Labour

Begar was the labour which all subjects had to provide the state for fixed periods during the year. It was unfree because there was no choice about wanting to give labour or not. Since agriculture was backward and most areas were not monetised, only a small part of the surplus could be appropriated through cash or kind. It was for this reason that direct labour services were the predominant form of surplus appropriation by the Hill States. There were basically two types of begar taken by the State; one, the regular labour extracted throughout the year and two, the contributions in labour and kind made during special occasions like birth, death and marriage in the Chief’s family. These types of labour had to be provided by all peasant proprietors and other agriculturalists, exceptions being made for members of the royal family, certain Bramhin and Rajput families and most of the village devtas and divinities. This labour service was taken by the State through its officers and the members of the royal family.

Labour which had to be performed regularly was called Athwara Begar and included

i) Porterage, including the carrying of revenue in kind to the chief’s household.

ii) Manning the Chaukis (watchposts) along the village roads and providing village watchmen.

iii) `Postal’ service within the state and carrying official communication to other states and the British town of Simla.

iv) Road construction and maintenance.

v) Providing labour, food and personal attendance to British officials on Shikar. This also included participating in the `chase’ and drum beating.

vi) Service in the royal household and kitchen, including provisioning grass, fuel wood, etc.

vii) Service to the village deity which included almost everything that was provided to the royal family.

The other form of begar was called Hela begar, and was part labour and part cash/kind contribution. This was a levy uniformly applied to state subjects and at times included those Bramhins and Rajputs normally exempted from begar.

Begar was recognised by the British authorities right from 1815, and all the Sanads granted to these Hill States recorded in detail the types, quantities and other requirements of the labour to be provided by the hill people to the British authority. British records of this period have no mention of the term Beth, or other forms of unfree labour, in the Western Himalayas.

Beth was a system of forced labour where the lowest castes like the Kolis, Doms, Chamars, etc., provided agricultural labour and other menial and `polluting’ services to the chiefs, the leading families and the village divinity. They also provided agricultural labour to the Kanet peasant proprietors ( “cultivating, inferior Rajputs” ), though only seasonally. Customarily debarred from land titles, they were dependent on their patron castes (clans?) and families for survival. They were not from the same ethnic stock and had different mythic-historic origins than the dominant groups in the villages. Their inferior position was reinforced through the various rituals and ceremonies that embodied the power structure of the village. Situated outside the Bhaichara of the Bramhins, Rajputs and Kanets, the Bethus (those who give Beth) were outside the decision making bodies of the villagers.

Reference to beth is rare in British records and it was more often than not collapsed as a form of begar, or as another form of tenancy. There is not much reference to the social class, political and economic status and/or function in the village society of the bethus. This, it seems, was primarily because beth and British interest hardly ever came into contact with each other. It was only in the last decades of the 19th century that the British first came to know about beth but were able to distinguish it from begar, in their policies, only in the last few years of their rule.

Beth and the Bethus

Bethus were basically the lower castes in the villages who, it is claimed in their origin myths, were the first inhabitants of the Western Himalayas. They were displaced and subordinated by the incoming tribe of the Khash, a part of the Aryans, who now constitute the overwhelming majority of the population of these hills. The Kanets, the Bhat Bramhins and some Rajputs claim their descent from this tribe. The tribes that the Khash subdued are collectively called the Nagas and the reference to the Karavaras in Smriti literature is also attributed to this same group. The Kolis who form the largest section of the Bethus and other low castes are supposed to have descended from them. Their social role, as given in the Smritis, was to carry conveyances, provide agricultural labour for the higher castes and do other menial work. Some Smritis also identify a caste/tribe in the Western Himalayas called the Kol who live in the forests.

In the area under study, the Kolis/Bethus were generally agricultural labourers bonded to the chief’s land which was known as Bassa. While they were ritually tied to their lord and his land, they could not own any land. They mainly worked in the fields and were recorded in Settlement reports as “hardworking cultivators”. Other than agricultural labour, they also gave labour in their chief’s household on a daily basis. Physical transfers of Bethus and transfer of their ownership was also prevalent as in the case of land being donated by the ruler and when he gave them as part of the dowry of his daughter / sister.

The Kanet proprietary peasants also took Beth labour for agricultural work on their land and also for community and domestic purposes. But they usually did not have similar semi – proprietary control over the Bethu’s person. Their appropriation of Beth labour was mainly through institutions similar to the Jajmani system, whereby certain Khash clans took specified, seasonal labour from local Koli groups. The latter were also responsible for doing all the menial work (and some ritually important work in the local religious ceremonies) for the village Bhaichara. Even during Begar distribution the Kolis got the more strenuous and polluting duties.

The Kolis have been put variously at 1/4, 1/5, 1/7 of the population in the different regions of the Simla Hill States by the Settlements and Gazetteers. The 1911 Census says that tenants ( this was the term used interchangeably with Koli, Bethu, agricultural labourer, and later, tenant-at-will in all British records) account for 17.1 % of the population of the Punjab Hills. The Simla District Gazetteer of 1888-9 says that about a fifth of the land was being cultivated by the Bethus. While this may not tell us much about their exact population in the region, it certainly shows their importance in the agricultural economy even in these areas of the Simla Hills which were directly under British administration and where the local chief’s had been dislodged. In the Simla district ( as distinct from the Simla Hill States which were formally under the local rulers ), if we look at the figures for Kotgarh and Kotkhai areas, which are fully rural, we find that the Kolis formed 23.5% of the population. In comparision the Kanets formed about 69% of the population.

In Kotkhai, since it was under direct British rule, no land was classified under the category of `State land’ and therefore we find that proprietary peasants tilled 96% of the cultivable land. The remaining 4% land was held in Jagir and Muafi grants and this was all worked by tenants who paid labour rent on exactly half the land and cash/kind rent on the other half. Payment of money for rent or revenue purposes was done by the Kanets and this tendency can be seen in most parts of the region under study. It does perhaps hint at the relative exclusion of the Bethus from the emerging money economy in the Simla Hills.

Comparatively, in the state of Rampur – Bushahr Kanets held much less land and the importance of Beth labour, which was used to cultivate the Bassa, Jagir, Muafi lands, was much more. Beth labour also became important in areas where there were large reserved forests worked by the British since the Kanets resisted working in these forests.

In the Simla Hills, labor rent was important to surplus appropriation mainly due to the low level of agricultural productivity and the virtual absence of money in large areas. The coming of colonial rule changed this in two ways. First, it assessed and preferred collection of land revenue in cash. Second, the stationing of army garrisons and emergence of hill resorts, specially Simla, in this region monetised the surrounding areas in its own peculiar way.

All the British land revenue settlements, whether in the Princely States or the directly controlled areas, calculated not just revenue but the value of commodities, services and ritual obligations in cash terms. A record from the mid nineteenth century speaks of the loss, due to ignorance and confusion, that the peasantry of Rampur-Bushahr had to bear after the settlement of 1853 since no one could calculate the various demands in cash. This change to cash was paralleled by another shift. Assessment and collection was now done on each plot of land and individual holders of land titles had to pay revenue which was totally contrary to the traditional practice of the peasant household ( which included all the brothers and their collective wives ) forming the basic economic and political unit of society. And we have references to resistance to cash assessment and collection by the peasantry from the time of the first `cash’ settlement itself. (See f.n. 4 above).

By the 1920s and 30s it seems that cash payment became common not only among the cultivating peasant proprietors but also increasingly among the `tenants’. By 1939 and later, the resident of the Simla Hill States was able to `advice’ the local Chiefs to convert Bethus into occupancy tenants or proprietary peasants (adna- malik) and charge compensation in cash — without foreseeing many “practical problems of cash collection”.

Traditionally, `payment’ for Beth was given through Chhak and a share in the harvest. Chhak consisted of daily food of about two seers of bread and two suits of clothing annually and the share in the harvest was usually in the range of 1/12 to 1/10 of the crop. At places even the Chhak was slowly converted into cash payment by the fourth decade of the present century, at three annas per day. The share of the harvest was also converted into cash payment at Rs.12 to Rs. 18 per year.

Simla and the cantonments at Kasauli, Dagshai, Sabathu and Jutogh employed an increasing number of villagers in various services paid for in cash. Almost all the menial jobs were done by the Kolis or by the immigrant `untouchable’ castes from the plains. So much was the preponderance of these “urban Kolis” in these menial jobs that the 1911 Census called them “scavengers of the hills”. By the twentieth century there were peasants employed in these British enclaves from every village if not every family. In the 1939 firing incident in the Hill State of Dhami, it was found during investigations that more than 600 of a total population of slightly over 5500 was employed in Simla, Jutogh and Sabathu. Some of these jobs were permanent positions in the municipalities and Imperial establishments, and some were seasonal as in rickshaw coolies, load coolies, etc..

Money was not the only thing that penetrated the rural hill society. Political ideas too flowed in. Resistance to oppression was as old as the institutions of Begar and Beth and was expressed through the Dumh. Resistance to the exactions of Begar and Beth was related to two factors, one, the economic and political context, and two, the social cultural milieu where there were specific limits to the legitimate and the illegitimate — the Jayaz and the Na-Jayaz. People rebelled when they felt that illegitimate demands were being made on them. This resistance was basically non – violent non – cooperation with the agents of the state by the peasantry. This would usually take the form of the peasantry declaring a specific action / demand of the state as illegitimate or a certain official/s as `tyrannical’ in the village or clan general body (Khumri). They would usually refuse to pay revenue or give any Begar and at times the entire village would leave their homes and migrate to the mountain tops and camp in the forests there till an acceptable solution was found to their grievance. At times these Dumhs turned violent when there was excessive pressure from the state. But what ever the course it took, it was always the Kanets who were in the lead in the planning and execution of these Dumhs, and we have no evidence, either in British records or in local traditions of an independent initiative being taken by the Kolis/Bethus. It also seems unlikely that the concept of `everyday resistance’ can be usefully applied in studying the Bethus since all records which speak either of the tenants or the Kolis/Bethus talk of them as “hard working” and “industrious cultivators” who would be central to any “scheme for the improvement of cultivation” in the Simla Hills. Conversely, these very records speak of the Kanets as bad cultivators, who are “lazy” and “not industrious”.

It also seems that the notion of legitimate and illegitimate demand of the state changed during the colonial period. While the acceptance by the peasants of labour demands lessened, the Simla Hill States too were strengthened by British Paramountcy vis-a-vis their constitutive social classes and groups. The State was, in the changed conditions, less willing to compromise on its demands, which were now enumerated with monetary exactitude in the documents of the Settlement Reports. Opposition by its subjects, the Begaris and the Bethus, to these demands heightened the possibility of a confrontation with the state which had the administrative and military backing of the British. This peculiar strengthening of the Hill States led an immediate worsening of the situation of the peasantry but also did open up possibilities of winning the struggle at a more radical level.

Resistance to Forced Labour

Uptil around the 1930s the revenue demands in the Hill States was assessed at around 22% of the total produce, plus the payment to the agricultural labourers and menials which amounted to around 12% , plus Begar and certain other cesses. The resistance to British revenue system was first recorded in Rampur – Bushahr in 1854 when peasants left their fields in protect. This was peacefully settled. Some Dumhs though became violent like the Sirmaur Dumh of 1880 where the peasants reacted with suspicion against the new revenue system with different rates of assessment. This coupled with official high – handedness, led to a major armed uprising where peasants barricaded their positions and fought pitched battles against the `pacifying’ British army. The land and other property of the leading rebels was confiscated.

The Bilaspur Dumh of 1885 too was against the increased rates of the new settlements and the oppressive behavior of the officials. Here too an armed confrontation developed between the state and the peasantry which required British armed intervention for its solution. These Dumhs were successful in forcing the Hill States to retreat and compromise with the peasant proprietors inspite of the British presence. By this time we find that in most cases the peasants too were appealing directly to the British, rather than to their rulers. But this `lobbying’ with the British, usually the Superintendent of the Simla Hill States, did not bring any succour to the peasantry.

In 1905 there was a Dumh in Baghal state against excessive Athwara Begar, due to frequent Shikar trips by British officials, against the doubled revenue demand of the new settlement and against certain imposts even against the `superior’ Rajput families. While the British intervened to end the Shikar `burden’ and the imposts on the Rajputs, there was no attempt to lighten the revenue demand since it was considered proper. Similarly, unrest in Rampur – Bushahr against excessive assessment during the settlement of 1906 was crushed by sending the police.

The last major upsurge against labour and revenue demands and against `oppressive’ officials in the pattern of the traditional Dumh was in the State of Mandi in 1909 where over 20,000 peasants are reported to have converged on the palace to seek justice from their king. Even though the State of Mandi does not form a part of the Simla Hill States it would be of relevance to our discussion to note this rebellion in some detail as the conditions were very similar. This Dumh was led by an ex-sepoy Sobha Ram who came back from the army and found the political, social system “oppressive and unjust”. He formed an organisation to agitate against this “oppressive and unjust” regime and against the misrule of the Wazir the highest official of the State. Initially the opposition took the form of petitioning the Raja and marching up to Mandi Town for an audience with him. Rebuffed the first few times, they reorganised themselves and came in a large group, 20,000 proprietary peasants, tenants and others. The Raja and his officers ran away and the state fell into the hands of these rebels who started organising a “people’s government”.

The Raja appealed to the Commissioner at Jullandhar who marched towards Mandi with two companies of the 32nd Pioneers. The rebels were not prepared for armed combat of this magnitude, even though the local tradition has it that the rebels had been given military training by Sobha Ram the ex-sepoy. The British army had little difficulty taking control of the town after putting down whatever sporadic resistance they met. Sobha Ram, his father and twenty four others, mostly Kanets and some Kolis, were tried and jailed — Sobha Ram to Kalapani, the others to Multan. All that the British did after the `pacification’ in response to popular demand was to remove the Wazir. No changes were brought in the Begar system or in the assessment of land revenue, which were the basic demands of the peasants.

This rebellion, more than anything else, shows the working out of the twin processes whereby the Hill States, buffeted by the British, became increasingly insensitive to the demands of their subjects and were able to get away with it. On the other hand, the people were getting more conscious of their rights and were redefining the bounds of legitimacy of state action. In other words, this was part of the process by which the peasantry was on its way to transforming itself from subjects to citizens.

This process should not be viewed in isolation and must be contextualised in the general situation of the country as a whole. The balance of forces between the Indian people and the colonial state along with its collaborators was changing in favour of the former. Thus it was becoming increasingly difficult to ride roughshod over the demands of the people by the end of the First World War.

Beth Reforms

On 4th October, 1941, the Political Agent of the Punjab Hill States sent an enquiry to all the states and estates in his jurisdiction about “Begar service” which included all forms of forced labour. The questions related to the amount of Begar levied, the number of holdings giving Begar, the types of Begar, the proportion of Begar to land revenue, the problems foreseen with the commutation of Begar into cash payments and ways of overcoming these problems. This information was needed “in view of the attention that begar service [had] attracted in the recent years”. Apart from the Praja Mandals which had come into existence at around this time and their growing agitations under the banner of the All India States’ People’s Congress, the “attention” on the issue of forced labour came from two other quarters. One, the demand by sepoys for commuting the Begar of their families, (one must remember that this was the time of the Second World War). Two, the independence movement, which took up the issue of Begar in the hills after the firing and casualties at the Dhami State satyagraha of the Praja Mandal. The All India States’ People’s Congress met in Ludhiana,Punjab, in 1939 where Pt. Jawaharlal Nehru was elected president and the INC too changed its position of non – intervention in the `internal’ matters of the princely states. All of these combined to make it imperative for the British to `soften’, if not abolish Begar and other forms of unfree labour in their present form, in the hills.

On 24 August, 1943 the Resident of the Simla Hill States called a meeting of all the Durbars to frame a model policy to abolish Begar and Beth in these areas Beth was defined “as an obligation to render personal service in return for certain cultivating rights”. There were two types of Bethus which were classified, (i)Bethus employed by the state, and (ii)Bethus employed by the cultivating peasant proprietors. The first class of Bethus was “opposed to the public conscience as having an element of slavery….”. This was therefore, recommended for immediate abolition, except for “palki service”. All services had to be henceforth paid for at the scheduled rates. Those Bethus who had been cultivating the same plot of land for three generations and more were to be made occupancy tenants while others were to be made tenants-at-will on a cash rent. Since the Bethus were not liable to render service to the ruler anymore, they were to pay revenue at double the rate plus cesses and usual contributions.

It is obvious that Beth was not being abolished but was rather `reformed’ by turning it into cash payment, more suited for the new context of a monetised and market integrated society. The question of Bethus under the proprietary peasants was totally ignored. It appears that this was so because the second form of Beth labour did not concern the income of the rulers and more importantly, the communal forms in which the peasant proprietor Bhaicharas took Beth, made it much more difficult to commute it to cash payments. It is also evident from our earlier discussion that the agitations since the coming of the British were centered around Kanet proprietary peasant demands and in that context, it was neither necessary nor easy for the British to tamper with the rights of the Kanets.

A third variety of Beth is also recognised, that of Beth service due to indebtedness. But the major concern of the Britishers, the local rulers and the Kanet peasantry was Begar and it was reduced considerably under pressure from the Praja Mandal, the national movement and the sepoys in the British Indian Army. The files pertaining to the reforms of Begar / Beth contain many petitions by the Bethus asking for an end to their hardships.

The discontent of the Bethus came out forcefully a few years later during the movement launched by the Praja Mandal at the time of India’s independence for the amalgamation of the Hill States into the Indian Union, for the complete abolition of Begar and for representative government in the region. The Suket State Satyagraha launched on 16 February, 1948 on the above demands saw a large Bethu participation in a movement which comprised almost all sections of the population though the leadership was still in the hands of the Kanets. The Satyagraha consisted of a Padyatra through the length of Suket State during which the marchers took control of all the organs of the state without any serious opposition. With the undermining of the power of the ruling families and their officials, their power to extract Beth was equally undermined. The subsequent abolition of land revenue removed the basis for taking cash Beth which now stood abolished. The requirements of Beth to the village community continued and in some areas is still prevalent.

A similar Satyagraha started in Rampur – Bushahr in March, 1948 saw a greater and more militant Bethu participation. Here the agitation developed into a violent confrontation between the Praja Mandal activists and the police and officials of the State. The latter were `arrested’ by the Praja Mandal activists and Rampur town passed into their control. The Diwan of the State rushed up from Shimla with armed reinforcements and managed to crush the uprising. There are local accounts of how the rebels were killed and their bodies were thrown into the Sutlej, of how villages were attacked, houses broken into and looted, of women raped. It seems that the Kolis came in for the most severe attack and were the main targets, perhaps due to their `audacity’. The State was amalgamated into the Indian Union in a few weeks from this and the agitation ended for all purposes.


To sum up the argument put forward till now, one can make three broad generalisations about the effect on Beth of British policy and administration.

One, the role of money became central to the social and economic processes of the hills. The assessment, collection and commutation of kind and labour rent in cash transformed the nature of the surplus extraction. This growing monetisation of the economy was not the result of internal dynamics but dependant on colonial intervention. Therefore, the forms of social, economic and political interaction did not change when their substance did. The manner of monetisation of hill economy did not lead to a “dissolving” of the social relations but rather ossified them. The implications of this on the political and cultural expression of the people and on the future development of the economy are areas on which much thought and effort have to be given.

Second, the efforts of the British to `reform’ and `abolish’ Beth led to a transformation in the manner of surplus extraction from labour rent to cash rent but the perpetuation of the system nevertheless. Not only is there evidence that points to the reluctance of the Bethus to accept cash commutation, the local states stood to gain from this change. This last point was very much in the knowledge of the local rulers and the British agents. While kind and labour rent was commuted to cash, there is no evidence to show that the Bethus were emancipated from the various disabilities they suffered from.

The third generalisation follows from the earlier two. It has been the accepted wisdom to look at the the reforms of Begar and Beth as one single process which enabled the final abolition of the systems of forced labour in the Western Himalayas. But one finds that rather than one there were two parallel processes at work. These have different causes, affect seperate social groups and have unrelated consequences on later events.

Begar abolition was mainly due to the pressures of teh rising assertion of the Kanet proprietary peasantry and the necessity of the colonial state to face the nationalist challenge while sttill recruiting soldiers for the Second World War. The controlled reduction in Begar dues led to its final abolition and the creation of the conditions which enabled the Kanets to take full advantages of the democratic set up of independent India and advance economically and politically so that today they not only are in the forefront of the horticultural revolution but also command immense political clout in Himachal Pradesh.

Beth reform was mainly due to the necessity of rationalising the tenancy structure and bringing it at par with the Punjab Tenancies Act. There is no evidence of an anti – Beth agitation, either on the part of the Praja Mandal, the local Indian National Congress, or by any organised group during the entire period of British rule. The British, on their part, kept referring to teh need for Beth reform since it was considered a type of “slavery” and since it was part of the process of `rationalising’ the land relation in the Simla Hills.

As the evidence so far seems to suggest, Beth reform led to a reconstitution of the same relation and not its abolition. Abolition possibly took place after the destruction of princely land rights and the ending of collection of land revenue after independence ( but I have not been able to study this period as of now). The main cause for the reform of Beth was the necessity of the local cheifs and big landed elements to convert their surplus into cash in an increasingly monetised economy.

The social classes touched by these reforms were also different. The Kanet proprietary peasantry in the case of Begar reforms and the Koli, Dom, Churah, Chamar, Turi, etc, in the case of Beth reforms. While the former were considered part of the Khash tribe and thus shared similar descent as the Rajputs and Bramhins, the Bethus were of a different ethnic group.

In the process of reconstitution of land relations that has been described above, the ownership of land played a crucial role. Those who had occupancy rights on land or those who were not ritually barred from holding land, gained as a result of the abolition of the system of forced labour. Conversely, those who were landless and who had ritual obstacles to the ownership of land, continued in servility and bondage. In the end, I would hazard the proposition that the change of a paternalistic non monetary relation into a purely monetary one, as the Beth reforms effected, probably led to a worsening of the position of the Bethus and their more intense exploitation, even though there does not exist any concrete evidence of this.




4 thoughts on ““Beth” in the Simla Hills

  1. kamal sharma

    What an article. Well researched. I am from Kotgarh and had always been curious to know and understand the ‘Kotgarh Of Old’. The words ‘Beth’ and ‘Begar’ could still be heard in common parlance mostly for taunting and defiance – ‘I am not your Bethu’.

  2. Pingback: “Beth” in the Simla Hills « KOTGARH

  3. Charlie W. Diaz

    Pradeep was destined to find his queen in Kotgarh too. He was sitting at breakfast table when Uma walked in with her silvery tresses cascading all over her fair face. Hold your breath! Pradeep just couldn’t help staring and exclaiming, ’Gazab ho gaya!’ Uma was the very queen he visualized for his video. Pradeep offered her the role. Uma accepted it. But who’s Uma, often seen on Shimla’s Mall, clad in traditional reshta and daatu? She comes from Himachal’s premier Stokes family, being eldest grandchild of late Samuel Evans (Satyanand) Stokes and married to apple orchardist Mahavir Singha. As a student, Uma enacted Macbeth in Auckland House and later in Benares University. She is a qualified doctor from Delhi’s Lady Hardinge and is a social worker too. Music video Piya Basanti was shot mostly in Uma’s apple orchards namely River View Orchards, where Shabnam’s rabbits in their angora farm, are also featured. Pradeep wanted to create artificial rain by using apple spray guns but luckily it rained. A crew of 80 worked day and night dragging their equipment up and down hill slopes, in pouring rains.


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