The Great Agrarian Conquest

The Colonial Reshaping of a Rural World

By Neeladri Bhattacharya

Subjects: India And South Asian Studies, Postcolonial Studies, World History, Social And Cultural History, Economic History
Hardcover : 9781438477398, 542 pages, September 2019
Paperback : 9781438477404, 542 pages, July 2020

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Table of contents

Introduction: The Great Agrarian Conquest
Part I. Governing the Rural
1. Masculine Paternalism and Colonial Governance
Colonial Riders
Styles of Governance
The Fear of Ambiguity
The New Paternalism
Reason and the Imagination
The Return of the Despot
Paternal Violence
Part II. The Agrarian Imaginary
2. How Villages were Found
How Estate becomes Village
Recording the Interior
The Cartographic Truth
Bounding Sovereignty
Agrarian Spaces, Village Structures
Respatialising the Rural

3. In Search of Tenures
Mapping Tenures
The Logic of Classification
Temporalising Space and Spatialising Time
The Prison-house of Categories
Landscaping Village Communities
The Limits of Classification
Empowering the Village Brotherhood
4. The Power of Categories
Ethnographic Truth and the Question of Rights
Translating Categories
Rights vs Practice
Fixity, Security, and Legal Order
The Production of Categories
5. Codifying Custom
From Text to Practice
Of Informants and Sovereigns
The Enquiry
The Impossible Task of Preservation
Tradition, Reason, and Time
Custom and Power
The Discourse on Custom
Part III. From Code to Practice
6. Remembered Pasts
Dabwali Dhab
The Remembered Past
The Time of Reciprocity
Through the Native Voice
7. Beyond the Code
The Myth of Patrilineal Descent
The Politics of Adoption
Against Gifts
The Will of the Dead
The Rights of Chastity
The Community and the Individual
Who was the Outsider?
The Commodity Economy and the Language of Rights
8. Fear of the Fragment
Fear of the Fragment
Times that Bind
Two Histories of Partition
Modernity and the Culture of Joint Holdings
The Market and the Ambiguities of Law
When Negotiations Fail
The Logic of Scatter
Part IV. From the “Primitive” to the Modern
9. Colonising the Commons
Nomads of the Bãr
Tirni and the Politics of Settlement
The Unpublished Maps
The Fraudulent Line
Regulating Rights
Regenerating Grasslands: From Practice to Science
10. The Promise of Modernity, Antinomies of Development
Canals and the Science of Empire
A Regime of Squares
Enclosing the Fields
A New Language of Claims
Promise and Betrayal
Antinomies of Development
Two Paths of Agrarian Conquest
Epilogue: The Last Ride
Figures and Maps
Fig. 1 Henry Montgomery Lawrence
Fig. 2 John Laird Mair Lawrence
Fig. 3 James Andrew Broun Ramsay Dalhousie
Fig. 4 Revenue Per Acre of Cultivated Area
Fig. 5 The Limits of the Agrarian: Distribution of Cultivated and Uncultivated Land in Punjab, 1891–3
Fig. 6 Mapping Villages: Congregated Village Map of Jullunder Tahsil, 1847–8
Fig. 7 Cartographic Enclosure
Fig. 8 Tehong Village, 1929–30
Fig. 9 Bhambu Sandila Village, 1934–5
Fig. 10 Spatial Structure of the Plains’ Villages of Central Punjab
Fig. 11 Classifying Villages, Spatialising Tenures (Punjab 1883-4)
Fig. 12 Chronology of Village Settlement in Sirsa
Fig. 13 Before and After: Visualising Consolidation
Fig. 14a Inheritance, Partition and Other Transfers, Jullunder and Ludhiana, 1893
Fig. 14b Inheritance, Partition and Other Transfers, Hissar and Karnal, 1893
Fig. 15a How the Land was Held: Tehong Village
Fig. 15b How the Land was Held: Bhambu Sandila Village
Fig. 15c How the Land was Held: Bairampur Village
Fig. 15d How the Land was Held: Suner Village
Fig. 16 The Bãr Landscape: Montgomery District, 1870s
Fig. 17 Tirni Mahals in Montgomery
Fig. 18 Map of the Canal Colonies
Fig. 19 Vision of Order: The Plan of a Canal Colony Abadi, 1898
Fig. 20 How the Farms were Cultivated: A Contrast Between Older Districts and the Canal Colonies
Fig. 21 Wayside Conversation: Darling Questions Villagers
Fig. 22 The Hand of Friendship

Groundbreaking analysis of how colonialism created new conceptual categories and spatial forms that reshaped rural societies.


This book examines how, over colonial times, the diverse practices and customs of an existing rural universe—with its many forms of livelihood—were reshaped to create a new agrarian world of settled farming. While focusing on Punjab, India, this pathbreaking analysis offers a broad argument about the workings of colonial power: the fantasy of imperialism, it says, is to make the universe afresh.

Such radical change, Neeladri Bhattacharya shows, is as much conceptual as material. Agrarian colonization was a process of creating spaces that conformed to the demands of colonial rule. It entailed establishing a regime of categories—tenancies, tenures, properties, habitations—and a framework of laws that made the change possible. Agrarian colonization was in this sense a deep conquest.

Colonialism, the book suggests, has the power to revisualize and reorder social relations and bonds of community. It alters the world radically, even when it seeks to preserve elements of the old. The changes it brings about are simultaneously cultural, discursive, legal, linguistic, spatial, social, and economic. Moving from intent to action, concepts to practices, legal enactments to court battles, official discourses to folklore, this book explores the conflicted and dialogic nature of a transformative process.

By analyzing this great conquest, and the often silent ways in which it unfolds, the book asks every historian to rethink the practice of writing agrarian history and reflect on the larger issues of doing history.

Neeladri Bhattacharya taught at Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi for forty-one years, from which he retired in 2017 as Professor of History. He has been a Fellow of St. Antony's College, Oxford, and has held visiting professorships in Europe, South Africa, and the United States.


"Writing a nuanced and historically deep account of agrarian life while, simultaneously, never losing sight of the ideas that animate those who would shape that history, is exceptionally difficult. Neeladri Bhattacharya has done for the Punjab what Marc Bloch did for much of France, John Furnivall for Burma and Paul Gourou for Indochina, and William Cronon for colonial New England. The sweep and intellectual ambition of The Great Agrarian Conquest ensures that it will become a touchstone even for those who would nurse a divergent narrative." — Studies in History

"During the British Raj (1858–1947), the spread of settled agriculture greatly transformed the Punjab region (currently divided between India and Pakistan). Bhattacharya insightfully documents and deeply examines this transformation by interweaving a range of sources, including original archival material, published government reports, and elite and popular literature by British and Indian authors … Highly recommended." — CHOICE

"The Great Agrarian Conquest is a subtle and substantial work of scholarship. If there is one book Indians need to read to understand how colonialism actually worked (or did not work), this is it." — Ramachandra Guha, in The Wire, in praise of the Indian edition