The Great Agrarian Conquest
The Colonial Reshaping of a Rural World
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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