B1 Rural and Agrarian Social Structure

Topics of interest for CSE:

  1. The idea of Indian village and village studies.
  2. Agrarian social structure – evolution of land tenure system, land reforms.

Village occupies an important place in the social and cultural landscape of contemporary India. Notwithstanding India’s significant industrialisation in the last six or seven decades, and a considerable increase in its urban population. A large majority of Indians continue to live in its more than 6,00,000 villages and remain dependent on agriculture directly or indirectly. In the 2011 census, rural India accounted for 68% of the Indian population. Similarly, the share of agriculture and allied activities has come down to about 16% of the GDP, while employing about 42% of India’s working population.

The Idea of Indian Village

A village has been defined in a multitude of ways:

  • Geographers say it’s a territorial space,
  • Indologists/orientalists maintain that it’s the heart of Indian culture and civilisation,
  • Marxists maintain that the village is a reflection of economic equality & inequality,
  • Anthropologists claim that it represents part society and part culture.
  • Sociologists, consider the village as the foundation to understanding the dynamic social life of India.

Colonial scholars like Munro and Metcalfe offered a stereotypical and biased explanation of Indian villages that they were autarchic, self-sufficient and politically independent little republics. The idea was that wars, revolutions, or change in centralised rulers had minimal impact on village life. Over time the colonial approach to study Indian society died out but this colonial ideology lingered for a while in Indian sociology.


Louis Dumont considers that the Indian village is not an empirical reality. Dumont says that it’s a geographic conception based on the idea of caste purity/pollution norms. He says that caste produces a hierarchy and the village offers a shelter to it, thus, village studies are nothing but studying caste inequalities.

Dumont maintains that Indian values, whether in rural or urban India, are pessimistic, non-innovative, culture bound, non-reflexive, and hierarchical which is the reason why European societies produced stratification (Homo aequalis) while Indian society produced hierarchy (Homo hierarchicus). He says that this is something that can be understood without even conducting village studies. This shows that the colonial ideology had infected Indian sociology and put a dent the size of Europe in the idea of objectivity/value neutrality.

Advent of village studies in Indian sociology is a testament to the rise of Indian sociology from the formal stage to the substantive stage. The structural functionalist school of thought here has been in conformity with the American anthropological tradition where scholars like WHR Rivers and Robert Redfield took interest in village studies. Rivers considered that peasants constitute part society and part culture while Redfield spoke about the folk-urban continuum (Little & Great traditions) indicating that villages and urban civilisations regularly share a harmonic relationship.

Village studies were introduced in Indian Sociology to gauge whether all villages located in different parts of the country are equally exposed to the larger urban society or not (Srinivas' idea of searching for a macro generalisation).

Apart from this village studies were seen as useful tools which would offer insights to policy makers about the dreams and aspirations of the village people. It can also be said that village studies were essential to study the impact of public policy on the everyday lives of the people.

The village studies tradition glorified empiricism, objectivity, and value neutrality to establish an equitable relation between European sociology and Indian sociology in a few short decades. Thus, village study is not just a method used by sociologists studying indian society, rather it can be considered the core of Indian sociology that took it from a nascent field of study to maturity pretty quickly.

MN Srinivas and AM Shah in their early contributions to the field of sociology tried to dispel the colonial understanding of villages as little republics. They proposed that the idea of village self-sufficiency was a myth. Colonial scholars, being armchair thinkers, glorified it because they were unaware of the ground realities and had a colonial perspective. In the 50s and 60s a number of books on indian villages were published by sociologists:

  • Indian Villages by MN Srinivas,
  • Village India by McKim Marriot,
  • Indian Villages by SC Dube,
  • Rural Profile by DN Majumdar, etc.

These village studies reflected on various aspects of village social life such as organisation of caste, family and kinship, landholding patterns, economic inequality, gender status, etc. Most significantly A Beteille’s study of Sripura, FG Bailey’s study of Bisipara village, MSA Rao’s study of Yadavpura, AM Shah’s study of Radhaganj are classic examples of social transformation of caste in India.
From these studies emerged concepts such as Segmentary system, Sanskritization, Westernisation, harmonic & disharmonic social systems, AJGAR, dominant caste, etc. These conceptual developments indicated that Indian sociology was finally catching up to European sociology in terms of theories and methodologies.

Pioneering studies by Bidelman, MN Srinivas, and William Wiser helped us better understand the Jajmani relations. A Betielle calls them vertical ties (vertical solidarity as opposed to caste based horizontal solidarity) between families of different castes that contribute to continuing inter caste negotiations.

David Hardiman on the other hand disagreed and said that Jajmani relations were disharmonic with the lower classes offering maximum skills for minimal returns. Thus, he said that caste relations were asymmetrical and this was institutionalised in the Jajmani system.

A number of studies in the 50s and 60s explained the interlink between caste and land holding to explain caste structure. A Beteille defined agrarian class structure on the basis of ownership, control, and usage of land. Kathleen Gough in her study of Kumbapetti village spoke about the rise of capitalist classes like rich farmers, big bourgeoisise, petty bourgeoisie, semi-proletariats, and pure proletariats.

Village studies also explored the caste-politics nexus and the influence wielded by so called dominant castes on local and regional politics. Apart from this studies by Leela Dubey and MN Srinivas demonstrated that village studies could also be useful for getting insights into gender role deviations.

Regional variations in kinship relations were also highlighted by numerous studies done by scholars such as Irawati Karve, TN Madan, Kessinger, AM Shah, Pauline Kolenda, etc. They spoke about the inter-linkages between caste and kinship relations, gender roles in kinship systems, family transformations and other related spheres of social change. Such studies contributed to the branching out of Indian sociology into various fields of study.

Critique of Village Studies

The Structural Functionalist approach is often criticised as a methodology that cannot guarantee objectivity and this holds especially true for village studies. MN Srinivas admitted that a village is not representative of the entire society, thus, an induction based approach to policy formulation would not be facilitated by village studies as different villages may respond differently to policy overtures.

MN Srinivas, A Beteille, and Leela Dubey clearly mentioned that during their field studies they never wanted to antagonise the upper castes, zamindars, or patriarchs who were often their hosts.

Yogendra Singh criticised the SF approach to village studies as conservative since it can only consider changes which take place inside the structure rather than changes to the structure itself.

Subaltern sociologists such as Ranajit Guha, Gayatri Spivak and other dalit sociologists reject the SF approach outright as most of the field reports are biased towards the dominant culture.

In contemporary India the impact of globalisation, development-displacement, plight of women, protests and movements, etc. require a much more holistic approach to understand the phenomenon. Thus, critical approach, feminist approach, post-modern approach, etc. are developing as alternatives to SF methodology in contemporary sociology. These approaches which are diverse in scope and usually macroscopic in their breadth speak about maturity of Indian sociological thought. In that statement, they point to SF and modernisation theory as the substantive stage while orientalism and Indology are being referred to as the formative stage of Indian sociology.
Thus, seeing that Indian sociology caught up to 200 year old European sociological thought in a matter of decades one should remember the critical contribution therein by the SF method.


In ancient times the land ownership pattern in India has been a matter of debate. It is generally assumed that the king had rights over land taxation but the community had rights over the land too. During the Mughal periods that the land tenure pattern was dramatically changed due to innovations introduced by the rulers.

The Mughals made the following changes to the land tenure system:

  • Divided the country into paraganas and took into account the fertility of the soil, productivity of land, as well as threat of natural calamities.
  • Appointed zamindars and talukdars in charge of collecting the tax in various paraganas. The “leisure class” expanded rapidly due to this.
  • Special areas were designated as Mughal bandhi areas under direct control of the emperor. They also introduced the patta system that converted hereditary rights over land into legal rights.
  • Introduction of the Jagirdari system. Most of the lands assigned as jagirs were rent free but the right over land was also temporary in character.

During the British era the land tenure system changed to conform to western standards of individual land ownership. The tenure systems were developed to ease the administrative pressures on the British who were confused by the system of communal ownership in India. By initiating these reforms, they outsourced the revenue collection to the new class of landowners and fundamentally changed the landholding pattern in the country. The motive behind the reforms was to increase the revenue and profit for the EIC.

1793 Permanent/Zamindari settlement in Bengal. British imposed a fixed amount to be paid by all zamindars hoping that the fixed nature of the tax would allow the zamindars to reinvest the saved money on the improvement of land. It quickly degenerated into absentee landlordism, and led to the development of multiple layers of intermediaries as rentiers. It must however be noted that whatever thought was given to improvement of land was a secondary consideration to increasing and regularizing the land revenue.

1820 Ryotwari settlement in Madras and parts of Mysore initiated by Alexander Read and Thomas Munro. Seeing that the south did not have any zamindars as were typically found in the north, Read and Munro felt that the settlement should be made with individual cultivators instead. Here too the British hoped that a fair assessment would allow reinvestment in land improvement but usually the assessed rent was so high that many ryots were unable to pay and usually fled.

1822 Mahalwari system in UP initiated by Holt Mackenzie. Here the assessment of all the plots in the village were added up and the amount was imposed on the Mahal/Village as a whole, in keeping with the old ways of functioning of the Indian villages. The village headman was in-charge of collection.

AR Desai pointed out that MoP and RoP sufficiently influenced the history of India in the colonial context.


The Indian national movement was largely a product of kisan sabha movement that was founded on the farmer and peasant movements in colonial India.

Bardoli, Eka, Champaran, Moplah, Kheda, and other movements served to bring peasants from different parts of the country together. The congress leaders and communists highlighted the suffering of the peasants and their plight, and it was perceived that in an independent country the state would take the responsibility of eliminating the intermediaries between the tillers of the land and the state.

Soon after independence most states felt the need for land reforms and they were launched with varying success in all parts of the country.

Their objectives were:

  • Control of land to the tiller so that agricultural productivity could be increased, employment guaranteed, and poverty reduced.
  • Land reforms were important to justify India’s commitment to a socialist ideology.
  • To put an end to class divisions in agrarian India.
  • Tenancy rights reform.
  • Consolidation of fragmented holdings.
  • Updating land holding records.
  • To break the linkages between caste and class as perceived then.

While land reforms started out with noble intentions, they were not implemented well.

Land reforms had three major components:

  • Land to the tiller (redistribution)
  • Removal of intermediaries and zamindars as absentee landlords.
  • Land ceiling norms.

Other than these the Bhoodan, Gramdan movement started by Vinobha Bhave was also responsible for redistribution of land in many places.

The zamindars, landlords, rajas, and nawabs had joined the congress and by 1947 held considerable sway in policy matters due to their power as an influential lobby. They feared that their land interests would be sacrificed if the land reforms were ever implemented strictly and thus made sure that their implementation was lax and loopholes plenty.

AR Desai called the ineffectiveness of land reforms in India a testimony to the shift from the external colonialism to internal colonialism.

Daniel & Alice Thorner conducted studies in over 250 villages in 1978 and found that 80% of the villagers were still small and marginal farmers who did not benefit from the land reforms. They listed some common methods used to circumvent the reforms:

  • Benami transactions,
  • shifting ownership from one member to the multitude of the HUF, and
  • bribing officials

The Thorners found that the nexus between caste and class was still quite strong as evidenced by the fact that maliks, kisans and mazdoors come from upper castes, middle castes, and lower castes respectively.

10th Agri Census 2015 found that 86% of farmers are small and marginal now.

Sunil Sen indicates that in case of Bengal and Kerala the strong presence of communist parties ensured that the peasants were more mobilised, better organised and their needs better articulated. The political parties were determined for reforms in these states and as a result of this, the two states show a large middle farmer segment and a decline in the number of landlords.

A Beteille in his study of Tanjore finds out that the non-Brahmins mostly benefited from the political decentralization program and captured power in both the village and state levels.MN Srinivas maintains that the Brahmins of South India were the first to go for westernisation and thus, it was not land reforms rather social change that gave way to land redistribution in these areas.

Thus, land reforms had a diversified impact on agrarian class structure in India.

  • Marxist sociologists consider that India has a mix of feudalism, semi feudalism, capitalist and semi-capitalist MoP.
  • In contrast liberal sociologists hold that land reforms coupled with green revolution have had a transformative impact on the agrarian class structure of modern India.
  • Both groups however conclude that since the impact of land reforms has been so diversified on the field therefore, stereotypical European theories and models would not necessarily be applicable to the Indian situation.

Gail Omvedt says New peasant movement is emerging in areas of capitalistic agrarian development (PB, KA, West UP, GJ, MH) which aims to represent the totality of farmer interests above caste and class divisions and engages in organised gheraos, rail and road blockages. (Current farmer protest an example of this)

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