Back to Table of Contents
Organizer: Prasannan Parthasarathi, Boston College
Chair: Pratap Mehta, Harvard University
Discussants: Douglas E. Haynes, Dartmouth College; Nazli Kibria, Boston University
According to a recent calculation, the real earnings of male agricultural labourers in South India in 1976 were only one-third of their late-eighteenth-century level. These figures appear to be representative of South Asia as a whole. This panel will explore the causes and consequences of this dramatic deterioration in the position of labourers.
Evidence suggests that the burden of falling earnings has been borne disproportionately by women. Since the late pre-colonial period, womens opportunities for well-paid and stable employment have steadily diminished, a process which has accelerated in India today with economic liberalization. As a consequence, women have become increasingly dependent upon men within the family and household and the value of domesticity has been strengthened.
The decline in labourers standards of living may be traced to the rise of the British colonial state, which from its earliest days sought to discipline and cheapen labour. It did this by eliminating rights possessed by labourers in the pre-colonial order, but without replacing them with new rights such as democracy or civil liberties, which became the basis for labourers struggles in Europe. However, the granting of these liberal rights in independent India has done little to improve labourers lot, which suggests important continuities in state discourse and practice between the colonial and post-colonial periods.
Sovereignty, Labour, and Gender in Pre-Colonial South India
Prasannan Parthasarathi, Boston College
According to conventional wisdom, poverty has existed in India for several centuries. Recent research, however, has begun to challenge this belief. I have shown in a recent article that a strong case may be made that real wages in the mid-eighteenth century were higher in South India than in Britain. These high earnings were a product of shortages in the supply of labourers; the rights of contract, mobility and property which labourers possessed; and a political order which respected these rights. This paper will address the latter two, sovereignty and the rights of labourers, and their implications for gender relations
The rights labourers possessed were granted, supported and ultimately revoked by communities. Sovereigns, as they had nothing to do with the establishment of these rights, could not legitimately interfere with them. In addition, labourers in South India were not subjected to the coercive powers of states and rulers. Such use of coercion did not form a part of moral rule. For these reasons, labourers were put in a very powerful position within the social, political and economic order.
Although many of these rights were held by men, the strong position of male labourers also led to a strong position for women within the family and household. Women had many opportunities for highly remunerative market activities, which gave them independence. This was reflected in rights of divorce for women from labouring families, punishment for adultery and the status of widows.
Colonial Discourse, Labour, and Democracy in Twentieth-Century India
Rajnarayan Chandavarkar, Cambridge University
This paper seeks to examine how colonialism in India constructed what came to be described after 1918 as "the labour problem." It will elaborate an argument sketched in my book Imperial Power and Popular Politics: Class Resistance and the State in India, 18501950 that colonial discourse was primarily a discourse about labour. Contrary to Edward Saids claim that colonialism was primarily concerned with land, this argument is predicated on the assumption that the colonial project was characterized by the struggle to acquire closer control over labour, cheapen its costs and subordinate it more fully to the discipline of capitalism.
Accordingly this paper will seek to develop three sets of arguments. It will investigate the relationship between colonial representations of labourespecially wage-earnersand its delineation of the inherently traditional character of Indian society. It will argue that it was precisely the notion that labour, supposedly held within the traditional trappings of caste, religion and village community, was rendered immune to capitalist rationality, which led in colonial discourse to the conclusion that culturally specific measures had to be devised to put Indians to work, to control and manage "workers" and to discipline them. Second, I will examine the implications which these characterizations of labour had for understandings of the social order in official and public discourse. In particular, the paper will examine the perceptions of colonial officials and Indian elites about the threat of the "lower orders" and the means which this discourse deemed necessary, indeed, imperative to contain it. Finally, this paper will examine the implications of this "knowledge" about working-class culture and its attendant statecraft as it developed in the final phase of colonial rule for the nature of democracy and civil rights in independent India.
Gender and Domesticity in India: Liberalization in Historical Perspective
Samita Sen, Calcutta University
In India today, the biting effects of liberalization upon the urban and rural poor are becoming increasingly evident. In addition, recent sectoral shifts in the economy have been on clear gender lines. Women are losing many of their earlier occupations, being crowded into less stable employment and being pushed to the margins of the economy. This paper proposes to examine some of these problems in a longer historical perspective.
Womens marginalization in the economy has a history of at least a century and a half. The effects of marketization on womens work and their social position have been so drastically negative because capitalism in India has operated in a field already heavily weighed against women. Gender disparity was already coded in family and community institutions which colonial capitalism strengthened and used for purposes of labour deployment and control.
Since marriage, childbearing and domestic work are completely non-negotiable for women, they undertake paid employment more in response to the needs of the household economy rather than the fluctuations of the labour market. They enter the labour market when they are already wives and mothers and usually because of the inadequacy or inconsistancy of male earnings. As a result, paid employment is neither conducive to achievement of any autonomy or empowermentit is merely an additional drudgery. Poor women thus aspire to exclusive housewifery since they have no access to the better-paid jobs available to some working class men and some middle class women, nor can they reduce or share the burden of housework and childcare. As a result, for poor women, over time, the values of dependence and domesticity have been maintained and even strengthened.