Natural Premises

This is a book review of Chetan Singh’s Natural Premises: Ecology and Peasant Life in the Western Himalayas 1800 – 1950, Indian Institute of Advanced Studies, Shimla and Oxford University Press, Delhi, 1998, pp. 252 + xx. It was published in the Institute of Advanced Studies bimonthly magazine Summerhill in 1999.

The Himalayas, specially their Western part, have for long been a part of India, but only as the geographical origin and mythological culmination of our religious imaginations. They were seamlessly transformed, during the period of British colonialism, into ‘little Switzerlands’ through European nostalgia and Indian imitation. Few academic works have attempted a fuller understanding of the region and its history distinct from the anecdotal accounts of the hill stations and the dalliances of the British elite. The exceptions to this trend were a few studies by Hutchison and Vogel in the thirties of this century, the works of D.N. Majumdar and G.D. Berreman in the sixties and Ramchandra Guha and Shekhar Pathak in the eighties. Most of these studies have confined themselves to specific institutions or processes like polyandry, Begar or commercial forestry, or like Berreman to an intensive study of one village. After the pioneering work of political history by Hutchison and Vogel, there has been no attempt to study this part of the country as an interconnected region with a historicity of its own. After a gap of about sixty five years there has been another study which attempts to historicise the region and study it in its completeness. If only for this reason, this book by Chetan Singh deserves to be read not only by those who are interested in the Western Himalayas and in contemporary debates about ecology and colonialism, but also by a more general public.


This focus on the region as an historical unit and the study of its distinct aspects as inter related parts of the whole have enabled the author to come up with a host of important insights. Our understanding of the origin and structure of the hill state, the environmental limits on the development of agriculture and the possibility of settled life, the importance of nomadic activities, specially pastoralism, are enhanced by the discussions in the book. Singh has been able to bring out the minor intricacies of peasant life and its relation with the local environment through detailed descriptions of the different activities which, though they may seem insignificant to an observer located in a market context, were essential in putting together a subsistence and often a surplus produce. All the chapters are heavily footnoted from a wide variety of official documents and have useful sub-headings which would enable future research to make this a base study.


While the chapters dealing with the hill state, agriculture and pastoralism have broken new ground, those dealing with forests and wasteland are the most important contributions of this book. Singh introduces the concept of ‘intermediate spaces’ for the land classified as waste in British land settlements. The ecological and economic importance of this waste land to that under direct cultivation has been well brought out, showing the dependence of agriculture to the proper utilisation of these intermediate spaces. The chapter discusses the process by which land was classified as waste and the difficulties faced by the Settlement officers in defining it, deciding its ownership, and assessing the government demand on it. Similarly the chapter on forests and the use of natural resources begins by making a crucial distinction on the type of natural resources that were used by the hill peasantry and that which was of commercial importance to the colonial state. This distinction enables Singh to nuance his account of the impact of colonial forest policy and its effect on local peasant economy and life. This chapter also follows the various shifts in attitude and policy of the British officials towards the forests, specially with regard to the species of trees targeted, the rights of the hill peasantry, and the long term objectives of forest policy. In a context where a majority of scholarship on forests, British forest policy and peasant response to it has assumed a simple model of the destruction of traditional village communities and their usufruct rights by the colonial state, these two chapters will hopefully make the debate more nuanced and historically specific.


Singh, in fact, questions the very notion of resources held in common by the village community ( he even raises doubts about the existence of a village community on the basis of various official sources). He indicates that even in the ninth and tenth centuries there are references to land grants to individuals which included all the forests, pastures, and other lands which were classified as wastes by the British. The related questions of the possibility of ‘private’ ownership of land in a situation where there is no proper market, either in land or in its produce would have enriched the argument but has been left unattended. While it is possible to argue that there are frequent references to individual holdings of land, this by itself does not discount either the existence of village communities and their common claims to natural resources, or even the absence of ‘private property’.


It is often that the author touches on important historiographical debates of this nature but does not carry his arguments beyond an initial questioning, leaving it to the reader to work out the larger argument(s) on her own. While this may be an acceptable feature of the book if it were a deliberate discursive strategy, but it is not clear that it is meant to be so. Let us take, for illustrating this point, the discussion on irrigation in chapter 2 and that of trade routes in chapter 6.


The discussion on irrigation is set in the context of a larger discussion on the nature of agriculture and its importance for ‘assembling permanence’ of settlements. Singh has included much detailed information about the construction of the irrigation water channels, the difference of size and structure in the different ecological and topographical areas, their importance to agriculture. He shows clearly that in the lower river valleys these are longer, covering fields in many villages and involving large amounts of communal labour. On the other hand, the upper river valleys had ‘micro’ irrigation channels which often watered only one peasants fields, involving correspondingly less labour and maintenance. The consequence of this on the structure of social relations and the exercise of political power is left unexplored. Irrigation also had a very important role in deciding the nature of crops cultivated, the yield of the crops and also the manner of meeting the demands of the hill state and other surplus extracting agencies. These in turn would influence the level of monetisation of the area and its internal composition of economic activities. While many of these issues are discussed in different parts of the book, their inter – relation is not made explicit.


In the discussion on trade routes, despite an abundance of information on the different types of roads and tracks used, the different methods of transport, and such other like, there is no attempt to analyse the importance of river valleys in providing traders from the plains access to the interiors of the mountains. Singh talks about the populations of the agricultural belt of the lower hills and those of the trans Himalayan cold desert where there was little agriculture, being more integrated with the market than the populations of the middle Himalayas where agriculture was combined with pastoralism. The former paid their taxes in money whereas the latter paid it in kind. But this does violence to the historical reality of the region. The Sutlej river valley was one of the most important trade routes and also quite monetised. It was in regions just above the Sutlej, in the Saraj region of Kullu district and in what came to be called the Simla Hill States by the British, that one finds the most ‘natural’ of economies and the least monetisation, and a parallel lack of development of proper state institutions. How does one explain this phenomenon. It is not possible to understand or explain these in terms only of the interaction of the environment and society.


Here one notices the weakness of the interpretative framework that Singh uses. Throughout the book there has been an attempt to use historical tools and concepts which owe their origin to the Annales historiography, specially Fernand Braudel’s works. This in itself is unexceptionable. The difficulty arises at two levels. It may be useful to explore these at some length. Singh continuously stresses the need to move away from environmental or geographical determinism and repeats often his claim that the interaction between nature and man in the Western Himalayas was not unidirectional. Rather, this relation was a complex embedding of different processes where one can identify equally the imprint of human actions on the environment as much as one can find social adjustment to natural conditions. This understanding of nature – culture relation does not reflect in the text where there seems to be a greater emphasis on the environmental conditions determining the specificities of human actions. As an illustration of this point let us examine his discussion of the origin and structure of the hill state.


The geographical factors which determined the formation of the State in the hills is looked at closely. These definitely add to our knowledge of the hill State, but they do not in themselves fully explain either the origin of these States or illuminate their distinct structures. The area south of the Dhauladhar range did not only have relatively small States able to exploit the surplus from larger agricultural yields due to the milder monsoons enabling two harvests a year. They also had large areas where lineage based clans controlled undisturbed political power and State structures were very under – developed. These came to be called the Simla Hill States by the British, but the use of that term was a legal figment. One can find similar exceptions in other areas, Dodra-Kawar in Bashahr State, ‘Poondur’ on the borders of Jubbal and Bashahr, Saraj in Kullu, which showed marked differences in their political organisation from the dominant forms in the same climatic, environment zone. It is somewhat surprising that Singh uses the works of Karl Polanyi and Andre Gunder Frank, apart from Braudel and E. LeRoy Ladurie, to understand the relation between ‘environment, territoriality and the state’ but ignores work closer home, like Romilla Thapar’s work on the transition from lineage to state in ancient India, D.D. Kosambi’s pioneering works on the emergence of state formations, or even D.N. Majumdar’s work on the region of Jaunsar-Bawar. There is an unfortunate absence of involvement with anthropological and political theories on the origin and functioning of the state which has even led to confusion over use of concepts like political power, government and state. A form of environmental determinism has crept in unwanted because of the author’s primary reliance on environmental factors in understanding and explaining historical processes.


In any attempt to use the framework of historical geography developed by the Annales school, and specifically Braudel, two things are imperative. First, a very careful definition of the ‘region’ and second, a selection of a ‘long duree’ and a comprehensive use of sources.


The title of the book defines the region of study as the Western Himalayas. Though there are differences among geographers about the correct definition of this region, Singh reduces it to the political boundaries of the present State of Himachal Pradesh. This is unacceptable. There can be no basis for the inclusion of the low lying areas of the Kangra valley in the Himalayas, either geographically or historically and the trans – Himalayan regions of Lahul and Spiti are again by no stretch of the imagination part of the Himalayas. The inclusion of these areas in the defined region reduces the historical focus of the work and strains the argument too often. Almost all the discussion of the trans – Himalayan areas is relegated to the end of each sub-section or chapter. Mere connections between traders and nomadic pastoralists of the different regions do not allow for such blurring of borders. On the other hand, the author totally neglects areas of the Western Himalayas which are outside the boundaries of Himachal Pradesh, like Garhwal which share much in common, both historically and environmentally.


Singh states that he has attempted to understand the dialectic of continuity and change in the relation between environment and the peasant’s life. The period of his study are the years which correspond broadly to British rule. This in itself is not long enough to achieve this objective, specially in a region where the sheer magnitude of geography make historical changes tortuously slow. But it is not an impossible task. For that one has to use a wide array of sources. Unfortunately, much of the book revolves around official British records, which in their present state of maintenance are scattered thinly over the historical ground. it is not possible to reconstruct both the processes of continuity and of change from only these. The use of anthropological sources, oral traditions, whether recorded in official documents, or available in songs and rituals, that would enable one to reconstruct a fuller account of the interaction of man and nature.


Many of the above mentioned methodological problems get noticed specially because Singh’s book is full of insights which would be of use to historians, ecologists, and others concerned with the region. A more rigorous involvement with these problems would have enabled the author to bring out his central argument much better and this, in turn, would have helped highlight many of his contributions which may pass an inattentive reader by. All this does not take away from the merit of this book. It is closely argued, attentive to details, and has recovered for scrutiny and interpretation a whole region of our country, ignored for too long by ‘mainstream’ historical research. This review is merely an indication of that singular contribution.




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