Essay Preview: Indian Fudalism
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What are the things that come tp your mind when you hear the word medieval?! All those stone castles, knights in shining armour and the pompous titles of Baron, Earl and Marquis in the movies, right? They were and still are the symbols of a feudal time. It was, loosely defining it, a hierarchical system in which lords, rented lands granted by the Crown to vassals, and which were worked on by serfs who were peasants with set obligations of labour and produce to their Lord, i.e. the vassal of the king. This system was marked by, as Kominsky defines it, the “binary of landlords and servile peasantry”. For Coulborn, the vassalage, the relationship between the lord and man, was the paramount feature of feudalism. He stresses on the fact that ‘political power was personal’ where the executive, military and judiciary were one man. Bloch says feudalism was born from the forcible marriage between “Roman villas and Germanic chiefdoms” where the exploitation just became more systematic and absolute, wherein “the right to the revenues from the land” became the de facto right to exercise authority. The main fissure of argument in the class discussions was: Was there feudalism in India? Most scholars would say yes, some might disagree, but for this essay, taking the answer to be a yes, let us see whether Western Europe was the only point of reference and what the nature of Indian feudalism was.
From what we have discussed in class and from scholars like Harbans Mukhia, RS Sharma, Irfan Habib, et al; we can say that the biased ‘land grant economy’, the eventual creation of landed intermediaries with insuperable rights in their holdings, each with his own law and order, scattered all across the kingdom was the roots on which Indian feudalism grew. There were many historiographies that Indian historians use to differentiate from European feudalism, or as Mukhia says “Eurocentrism in the study of history”, and the uniqueness of the landed economy in our history into one category: Indian feudalism, in which the lord, most of the time being a donee, was not a vassal per se, and the peasant controlled the process of production. Habib refrains from calling it feudalism and instead say it was a ‘medieval Indian system’, while Rudra is sceptic of support for feudalism’s importance just as a negation of Marx’s Asiatic mode of production.
Ashok Rudra, a feudalism critic, says it rests on what you take the definition of feudalism to be, a mode of production with ‘geographic incarnations’ or the ‘very specific combination of characteristics’ of Western Europe, stemming from Bloch’s inferring of Voltaire and Montesquieu. He even mentions that historians differ on the very basis of feudal society itself, whether it was land or ‘personal groups’. With both these, one great difference between these two systems pops up, as in Europe feudalism became predominant because of the way the peasantry changed but in India it was all the work of donations of land which created quasi-lords and vassals. The state in Europe gave land to lords and collected taxes from them but in India land grants were made to donees to get taxes collected (!), who would rent it out to teant peasants, with the state not getting a penny.
‘Kutumbin’, ‘Rashtrakuta’, ‘Nayaka’, ‘Ranaka’, ‘Samanta’ and ‘Thakura’ are some of the titles mentioned in copper plate grants, which actually suggest some form of ‘superior classes’ who owned land. Kutumbins were ‘family settlers’, to whom uncultivated land was given in perpetuity, Rashtrakutas were the highest of landholders with the ‘duty of bearing arms in the royal service’, while the Thakurs and Nayaks were lower landlords with military duties. Some of these landlords were also known to have “foster-relationships’ with the kings as seen in their sharing of dynastic names. Kosambi says most plates show the grants being given by monarchical decree but from the tenth century, he cites records of ranakas handing out grants with and without sovereign confirmation, which he says are “a definite indicator” of feudalism.
Mukhia makes his point when he goes to say that the nature of the labour was very different as the European peasantry were forced to apportion labour to their lord, due to a variety of factors which include short growing season, relative infertility of soil and the size of landholdings. It all worked on the idea that the physical potential of the peasant family was over and above that needed for his ‘manse’, a planned use of the peasant’s surplus labour on the lord’s fields. A manse being the unit of land required to keep ‘one household at subsistence level’ says RH Milton, which did differ from region to region.
An important thing to note is that the Indian peasant was accustomed to long periods of free peasantry and short periods of serfdom. How you may ask. The peasants simply spent more time on their land which was taxed, his landholding was sufficient for his family’s subsistence; they were subservient only to the ruling class and the simple fact that forced labour, a much loved way of building mausoleums and royal edifices, was a state activity and not a part of the mode of production. We know from the Arthashashtra and Bernier that artisans were subjected to forced labour much more than peasants, sometimes being paid. The holdings’ size and the longer annual timescale of agrarian work prevented a concentrated demand of a huge labour force which stopped the Indian peasant from being reduced to serfdom, in the economic sense. I think we can infer from the facts that at the bottom of it all, the Indian peasant was kept from rising by ripping off his surplus produce, while the European serf was just denied the basic opportunity to achieve that.
While talking on this, we also must not forget Kosambi’s defining concepts of ‘feudalism from above and from below’, in the Indian context.
Feudalism from Above: The subordinate kings ruling their territories ‘in their own right’ with no interference, as long as they paid the emperor his tribute.
Feudalism from Below: A class of landowners slowly developing in a village, obtaining armed power over the populace and becoming an intermediary between state and peasant.
Sharma opines that the creation of this class of landed intermediaries who ‘entrenched