As the title suggests, Dirk A. H. Kolff`s minor classic of a book is quite heavy at times, and not for the faint of heart or for those who don`t want to read about military recruitment and Rajput poetry. It`s a rather unique book as well, as its focus is really on the cultural and labour history of certain military service groups in northern India, ones with close connections to the peasantry and made up at first of nebulous `castes` whose identity only became solid by the middle of the seventeenth century.
It isn`t an easy book to summarise, because Kolff really has collected here a series of related articles to draw a picture of the history of the Indian sepoy and the labour market that supplied them to ruler after ruler. The thread that runs between these articles is tenuous, and some of the chapters are better than others (or rather, some are more interesting to me), as is usual for a scholarly book of this sort. Naukar, Rajput and Sepoy does surprise the reader with a sense of the flexibility and mobility of pre-modern British society.
The peasantry of India were heavily armed. Kolff cites Peter Mundy`s reminiscences of travelling through India in 1632, in the present-day Kanpur district, where Mundy saw: “labourers with their guns, swords and bucklers leying by them while they ploughed the ground”. Another example from 1650 describes the Rajputs of the Agra area:
“They are a numerous, industrious and brave race. Every village has a small fort. They never pay revenue to the hakim (tax-collector) without a fight. The peasants (riàya) who drive the plough keep a musket (bandug) slung over their neck and a powder-pouch at the waist. The relief-loan (taqavi) they get from the hakim is in the form of lead and gunpowder.”
As Kolff notes, the monopoly of arms we assume to be a feature of the modern state was impossible in pre-Mughal and Mughal India. The peasantry was so well armed and numerous that it could be considered less the subjects then the rivals of the state. Tax collectors and recruiters could be assaulted and killed, and were likely to enter an area well protected, as were caravans that hired hundreds of guards (many of them mobile peasants as well); troops were driven out or robbed on the march. The problem of rules, Kolff writes, “was how to deal with the peasantry at large, how to subject to some manner of control and collect revenue from these almost ungovernable tens of millions of people protected by mud forts, ravines, jungles… and the weapons they were so familiar with” (9). This difficulty of rule meant that the Mughals were never as absolute or despotic as we imagine, and that on the local, provincial or regional level rule meant negotiation, loan relief, tax exemption, the waving of debts and the toleration of continued armament.
This `freedom’ of the peasantry was dearly bought: villages too recalcitrant, or too well organized, or supporting the forces of bandits and rulers hostile to the Mughals, would be razed. Whole towns would be sold into slavery as the ultimate punitive measure, if the inhabitants simply weren`t massacred. Mundy, again in 1632, travelling between Agra and Patna in Bihar, “saw, during four days of passage…200 minars or pillars on which a total of 70,000 heads were fixed with mortar.” According to Mundy, this was the work of Abdullah Khan, a powerful Mughal general, whose force of 30,000 “destroyed all their [the peasants] townes, tooke all their goods, their wives and children for slaves, and the chieftest of their men, causing their heads to be cut off and to be immotered” The result was constant low level warfare, that might not be unfamiliar from early seventeenth century France or nineteenth century Russia. Only by about 1818 was the British East India Company able to disarm and pacify much of the countryside in its grasp, but only then as part of a general trend to fix peasants to their home, deprive them of many forms of redress and confiscating their means of resistance, the ubiquitous matchlock musket.
The ‘unsettled’ centuries of pre-British India were ones of opportunity for soldiers, some of whom came to be known as `rajputs`. The term is generally ethnic now, but was much less specific in early modern India. As the title of the book suggests, rajput was just another appellation like naukar or sepoy, generic and vague enough to encompass a wide variety of peoples and groups, and even organizations, even if the `proper` Rajput clans did exist at that time. Kolff describes this process:
“Rajput soldiers of the seventeenth century must have been of the most diverse origins. True, with a large number of them, memories of their precise social backgrounds were gradually obscured by vague territorial identities or claims of ksatriya status. But in ancient times, recruitment…had not taken social origins into account. Instead, it overlaid old identities with a new…’rajput’ veneer.” (155).
Certain castes considered themselves `pure` Rajput, and monopolized certain ‘regal’ names and territories, but the evidence that Kolff musters suggests that many otherwise unremarkable peasant groups were able to assume the mantle of glorious (and lucrative) rajput even if they were not considered of the ‘right’ caste.