, Begar and Reet
Indian society underwent many changes after the British came to India. In the 19th century, certain social practices like female infanticide, child marriage, sati, polygamy and a rigid caste system became more prevalent. These practices were against human dignity and values. Women were discriminated against at all stages of life and were the disadvantaged section of the society. They did not have access to any development opportunities to improve their status. Education was limited to a handful of men belonging to the upper castes. Brahmins had access to the Vedas which were written in Sanskrit. Expensive rituals, sacrifices and practices after birth or death were outlined by the priestly class.
When the British came to India, they brought new ideas such as liberty, equality, freedom and human rights from the Renaissance, the Reformation Movement and the various revolutions that took place in Europe. These ideas appealed to some sections of our society and led to several reform movements in different parts of the country. At the forefront of these movements were visionary Indians such as Raja Ram Mohan Roy, Sir Syed Ahmed Khan, Aruna Asaf Ali and Pandita Ramabai. These movements looked for social unity and strived towards liberty, equality and fraternity. Many legal measures were introduced to improve the status of women. For example, the practice of sati was banned in 1829 by Lord Bentinck, the then Governor General. Widow Remarriage was permitted by a law passed in 1856. A law passed in 1872, sanctioned inter-caste and inter-communal marriages. Sharda Act was passed in 1929 preventing child marriage. The act provided that it was illegal to marry a girl below 14 and a boy below 18 years. All the movements severely criticized the caste system and especially the practice of untouchability.
The impact of the efforts made by these numerous individuals, reform societies, and religious organisations was felt all over and was most evident in the national movement. Women started getting better education opportunities and took up professions and public employment outside their homes. The role of women like Captain Laxmi Sehgal of Indian National Army (INA), Sarojini Naidu, Annie Besant, Aruna Asaf Ali and many others were extremely important in the freedom struggle.
The British had come to India with the idea of making immense profits. This meant buying of raw materials at very cheap rates and selling finished goods at much higher prices. The British wanted the Indians to be educated and modern enough to consume their goods but not to the extent that it proved detrimental to British interests.
Some of the Britishers believed that Western ideas were modern and superior, while Indian ideas were old and inferior. This was, of course, not true. Indians had a rich traditional learning that was still relevant. By this time in England there was a group of Radicals who had a humanistic ideology towards Indians. They wanted India to be a part of the modern, progressive world of science. But the British government was cautious in undertaking rapid modernisation of India. They feared a reaction among the people if too much interference took place with their religious beliefs and social customs. The English wanted perpetuation of their rule in India and not a reaction among the people. Hence, though they talked about introducing reforms, in reality very few measures were taken and these were also half-hearted.
The Industrial revolution has helped the English merchants accumulate a lot of capital from the countries of Asia, Africa and America. They now wanted to invest this wealth in setting up industries and trade with India. The mass production of goods through machines that we witness today was pioneered through the Industrial Revolution which occurred first in England during the late 18th and the early 19th century. This led to a massive increase in the output of finished products. The East India Company helped in financing and expanding their industrial base. During this time there was a class of manufacturers in England who benefited more from manufacturing than trading. They were interested in having more raw materials from India as well as sending their finished goods back. Between 1793 and 1813, these British manufacturers launched a campaign against the company, its trade monopoly and the privileges it enjoyed. Ultimately, they succeeded in abolishing the East India Company’s monopoly of Indian trade. With this India became an economic colony of Industrial England.
Earlier, Indian handloom had a big market in Europe. Indian textiles such as cotton, linen, silk and woolen goods already had markets in Asia and Africa. With the coming of industrialisation in England, the textile industry there made important headway. There was now a reverse of the direction of textile trade between Britain and India. There was a massive import of machine made clothes from English factories to Indian markets. This import of large amount of products manufactured by mechanical looms in England led to increase threat for the handicraft industries as the British goods were sold at a much cheaper price.
The British succeeded in selling their goods at a cheap price as foreign goods were given free entry in India without paying any duty. On the other hand, Indian handicrafts were taxed heavily when they were sent out of the country. Besides, under the pressure of its industrialists, British government often imposed a protective tariff on the British succeeded in selling their goods at a cheap price as foreign goods were given free entry in India without paying any duty. On the other hand, Indian handicrafts were taxed heavily when they were sent out of the country. Besides, under the pressure of its industrialists, British government often imposed a protective tariff on Indian textiles. Therefore, within a few years, India from being an exporter of clothes became an exporter of raw cotton and an importer of British clothes. This reversal made a huge impact on the Indian handloom weaving industry leading to its virtual collapse. It also created unemployment for a large community of weavers. Many of them migrated to rural areas to work on their lands as agricultural laborers. This in turn put increased pressure on the rural economy and livelihood. This process of uneven competition faced by the Indian handloom industry was later dubbed by the Indian nationalist leaders as de-industrialisation.
Unfree labour was central to agricultural production in pre-colonial India. Under colonial impact, these forms of unfree labour, while retaining their outward form, were radically changed in content. In medieval times, the subjects of the king were never `free’ as in the modern sense and all social classes and groups were linked to each other vertically and horizontally in ties of bondage, dependence and patronage. Under colonialism these ties got removed from their socio – economic context of origin and existence, and functioned differently in the new environment. It would be an attempt of this paper to see how and what changes were brought about in the institution of `Beth‘ – forced labour of unfree lower castes – in the Simla Hills under the impact of British rule.
Beth and its cousin category of Begar were forms of unfree labour of the agricultural castes. While the latter was given by practically every State subject for community and administrative works, the former was only given by the lowest castes to the higher castes and it usually took the form of semi-serf agricultural labour. When the British gained physical control of the Cis-Sutlej hills in 1815, they gave Sanads to the petty States of the region confirming their formal independence under British Paramountcy. These States, eighteen in all, were given almost complete independence in their internal matters. Begar was the only exaction of the colonial state from most of them in the absence of any proper tribute.
There has been almost no attempt to study the agrarian economies, social structures and political institutions of the Western Himalayas except in the few ecology centered works on the region. Beth ( or other forms of the labour of the lowest castes ) has never been considered worthy of even the most preliminary study, though there have been one or two exceptions. Before we begin any discussion of unfree labour in the specificities of the Simla Hill States, it would be useful to place it in the wider context of unfree labour in colonial situations.
Begar a form of social labour without payment. Its origin goes back to the pre-money era when labour was viewed as an important item of exchange. The land of the king and his men and priests were cultivated by peasants in exchange of some tenurial rights in land granted by the king. When the state became a more elaborate and complex affair in later period, the demesne lands of the ruling classes, particularly of the landlords, were worked by their prajas or subjects gratis. This was considered to be a pious act to give free labour to the priestly classes. Village people always gave free labour in working temple lands also. Such a free labour system is not to be confused with the use of slave and bonded labours. Free labour was given either in exchange of some rights obtained in land or some invisible merit obtained from rulers or from priests. It was a social arrangement made possible under the pre-monetised modes of production and social relations.
Begar was the labour which all subjects had to provide the state for fixed periods during the year. It was unfree because there was no choice about wanting to give labour or not. Since agriculture was backward and most areas were not monetised, only a small part of the surplus could be appropriated through cash or kind. It was for this reason that direct labour services were the predominant form of surplus appropriation by the Hill States. There were basically two types of begar taken by the State; one, the regular labour extracted throughout the year and two, the contributions in labour and kind made during special occasions like birth, death and marriage in the Chief’s family. These types of labour had to be provided by all peasant proprietors and other agriculturalists, exceptions being made for members of the royal family, certain Bramhin and Rajput families and most of the village devtas and divinities. This labour service was taken by the State through its officers and the members of the royal family.
Begar was recognised by the British authorities right from 1815, and all the Sanads granted to these Hill States recorded in detail the types, quantities and other requirements of the labour to be provided by the hill people to the British authority. British records of this period have no mention of the term Beth, or other forms of unfree labour, in the Western Himalaya.
In the Shimla Hill States and many adjoining countries such as Mandi, Kullu and Kangra, an obnoxious custom namely Reet was prevalent since time immemorial. It is difficult to give any precise definition of Reet.To some it was a form of marriage but to others, it was the payment usually made on the occasion. Therefore, Reet may be defined as a form of marriage without any ritual or ceremony and was contracted by paying a price. Under this custom, girls and young women were allowed to go for sums usually ranging from Rs.lOO to Rs.500 but sometimes going up to Rs.2,000 by the parents or other guardians in the case of unmarried girls and by husbands in the case of married ones. Thus, the amount paid was known as "Reet' money. After the payment of this money, the first marriage was, ipso facto annulled and concubinage with the second man became a marriage. There was no limit to the number of women, that one might get under Reet nor any restriction as to leaving any of them again, and in this they might change hands any number of times. Therefore, the marriage under "Reet' could be dissolved as easily as it was contracted. From this it is clear that woman was treated as a chattel, a commodity to be brought and sold time and again.
The Reet was prevalent among the Kolis, Chanals, Chamars and other tribes which formed the lowest rung in social stratification. In most of the Hill States, if not at all, it was also prevalent among the Kanets. However, Reet was not observed among the high caste Brahmans and Rajputs.
There were many evil results of "Reet" custom; domestic ties became loose and marriage came to have very insignificant position in the stability of society. Indiscriminate relations of a woman with many men often resulted in her catching syphilla and in return, she transmitted the disease to many persons. Perhaps that is why these contagious diseases became widespread in the hill states. Further, the institution of "Reet' also resulted in the laxity of sexual relations and the total disregard of the laws of chastity. The girls were often used for immoral purposes and this led to a notorious traffic in them, which finally swelled the ranks of prostitutes. While highlighting the bad results of the custom, the "Bombay Chronicle' commented: The effects of such lax relationship, whether on the character of sex-relationship or on racial advancement were disastrous. Since marriage is purely mechanical, being based on money bargain, it is not regarded as a sacred human relationship with the result that the conditions which obtain there are hardly distinguishable from general promiscuity. Divorce is not obtained on some rational grounds such as cruelty or vice or insanity of a mate or even an irreconcilable incompatibility of temperament between the couple, but simply on that of lust backed by economic means. The result is the degradation of the status of women, which, after all a the test of morality and steady racial degeneration among the hill tribes.