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.
Much of Naukar, Rajput & Sepoy is taken up by histories of this sort, of warbands and mercenary captains of indeterminate origin raising themselves through service, bribery and conquest to be the equals of princes or at least to be recognized as important by emperors. Many of the men that came to serve these warlords were from far away, with the chief recruiting grounds centred in areas of dense population but poor state control, like Bihar or Malwa. It would not be unusual for a man or groups of men to travel far, from Malwa to serve in Gawlior or the Deccan, and these lines of recruitment to certain villages were very venerable indeed, lasting until long past the British conquest. Likewise, rajput could often be synonymous with bandit or outlaw, as petty Rajput rulers were frequently chased into the jungles and became gangs of freebooters and robbers, only to emerge decades later and reestablish a claim to their traditional parganas. These bandit-kings, likewise, had little trouble adjusting to the service of the Mughal emperors, but their service always carried the risk of a return to outlawry if not satiated by treasure and title. Banditry and soldiering were off-season occupations for many peasants, a chance during the dry season, especially if crops failed, to loot, steal or be rewarded for their service; consequently, campaigns often began after the harvest was in, to ensure a ready supply of idle hands, willing to soldier for the potential of rich rewards.
A multiplicity of identities was common to early modern India. We are used to the cliché that “one man`s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter,” but such contradictions of subjectivity were common place in north India. A professional rajput soldier could easily be a bandit and a peasant, indeed were all three, and their identity had more to do with those occupations than with an ethnic or religious solidarity and consciousness (though these did play a role, indisputably). Employment by an Iranian or Afghan also implied a certain initiation into that ethnic group. Many peasants, before the Mughals, could, through service and success, become a rajput, and their hiring by a powerful notable cemented such status.
Likewise with the Afghans and Turks that served the armies of the Lodi dynasty and the warlord Sher Shah. We do not know if the warriors that served them were actually ethnically Afghan or Turk as we understand it; some certainly were, but these terms became synonymous with warrior as readily as rajput or sepoy, and thus nearly as meaningless in more specific senses. Kolff relates that as late as 1918 Hindu men were changing their name to Singh and enlisting in Sikh brigades; undoubtedly such processes, such ease at changing name and identity, were at work much earlier, and involved the same pragmatism: war and manpower. Treasure decided loyalties, manpower determined military success, and tapping into the labour market, into these self-made communities of obscure warriors, was necessary for success, no questions asked, as the French Foreign Legion was so fond of.
So long as the rajputs remained mercenaries on the outskirts, they were still open to recruits of any caste and ethnicity, melting old identities and making new ones. Kolff documents British attempts to trace the genealogies of groups claiming to be Rajput, and discovering both the lowness of their original station, ferrymen, farmers, artisans and wanderers, and the spuriousness of their claimsto the Rajput names. Indeed, it does not seem that Rajput as a clear term of ethnicity and culture was solidified until the seventeenth century, as part of a process by which the Mughals adopted Rajputs (who may have started their careers as lowly rajputs) into their imperial house and made them powerful members of the state. The incentive to formalize, specific and make exclusive what it meant to be Rajput, and
especially to ensure that only high castes could become Rajput, came from this ascension to power. By the nineteenth century, sepoys in service of the East India Company, once a name for a profession united by military service and little else, was monopolized, or colonized, by high caste Rajput as well, as native recruiting sergeants chose men of their own, apparently exalted caste.
Conclusions derived by Kolff, or from the book: caste is not nearly as fixed or timeless a determinant of social position as it was previously thought (of course this had long been under attack sociologically and politically, but Kolff adds some additional historical derived material) against the assumption that caste (as described in Homo Hierarchicus by Louis Dumont for instance) has been sharply defined and delineated since at least the Vegas. The reality is that caste could be and was negotiated and flexible, requiring consent and active collaboration, and during the early modern period of Indian history still open to manipulation, not just by high castes but by low, and that the lowly anonymous farmer-bandit-soldier was an active agent both in improving his lot and his station, in resisting or joing the dominant hierarchies, and thus combating another (as I pointed out in Bayly’s work) another still strong cliché about India: that the village and rural life was of crushing, monotonous, changeless despair, forever beholden to the demands and horrors of the rulers (until the British arrived, so goes the story used in part to bolster colonial regimes) was not inevitably bond to a cruel, unchanging system. India was never as stable, oppressive or absolutist as the assumptions frequently made by earlier scholars; quite the opposite, there was actually less order than in much of Europe at the same time, and an equally longstanding tradition of peasant resistance against, but also participation and self-fashioning in, the states and ruling classes of India, a situation that puts the jacqueries of Europe to shame.