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Picture of Haryanvi Society

Political Economy of Production and Reproduction: Caste, Custom and Community in North India by Prem Chowdhry (Oxford University Press), 2011; pp 434, Rs 895.

Picture of Haryanvi Society

Nilika Mehrotra

rem Chowdhry is one of the few eminent historians in India today who has successfully engaged with the past and present with equal ease and deftness through delicate balancing of an interdisciplinary perspective. The articles in the present volume inform about the complex history of the north Indian region. Her command over her craft is exemplary and clearly reflected in the weaving of these papers into one thread, i e, the unravelling dynamics of identities based on caste, community, gender, and religion in Haryana marked by contradictory indicators of relative prosperity and consolidating rigidities of tradition. The language is lucid and free from theoretical jargon.

Land, Caste and Gender

The book is divided into two sections. The first titled “State, Law, Economy: The Colonial Flux” contains five chapters. The thread running through these chapters is that of land in the agrarian economy, its ownership, the inheritance pattern and how colonial officers and courts helped in resolving disputes by directly and indirectly aiding the a big landowners, money lenders and others. The author makes effective use of court cases in delicately teasing out the changing patterns through time.

This section examines the implications of colonial rule on agriculture, animal husbandry and other related aspects in north India including Haryana and Punjab. Following M N Srinivas, Chowdhry provides an interesting case study of the socioeconomic basis of Jat domination in the south-eastern parts of Punjab. Intercommunity relations and conflicts, i e, between Hindus and Muslims have also been pitched along the land question in colonial times. However, it is not religion alone but also the caste factor which informed the contours of communalism in north India. Rights in land and inheritance in the highly patriarchal and patrilineal context ensure total exclusion of women from owning

book review

Political Economy of Production and Reproduction: Caste, Custom and Community in North India by Prem Chowdhry (Oxford University Press), 2011; pp 434, Rs 895.

land and dependence on affinal agnates with the exception of some rights for widows in the customary laws. Interestingly, Haryanvi society evolved the Kareva (levirate) system enforcing marriage on widows with one of the agnates of the deceased husband to avoid division of the family property.

This chapter, along with the one on inter-caste marriages, makes evident the gender discrimination inherent in customs and community structures. Women most often lost out on not only rights in property but also rights within and without marriage. Courts also seemed to support the claims made by the extended family rather than those made by the woman. Chowdhry, however, does not see custom as going totally unchallenged. The counter claims made by widows in the past, their resistance to remarriage, or forming relationships out of wedlock and acquiring the label of unchastity (badchalani) demonstrate their limited agency. However, one looks for more ethnographic details on these cases in order to understand what kind of social support aided these widows to pose challenges to a harsh social system. What happens to the children born out of such relationships?

The chapter on inter-caste marriages reveals how common these marriages were in the colonial past. Chowdhry examines the contradictions in the social processes by looking at the fate of pratiloma marriages, co-wives, and their claims if any, position of children and role of the government. Chowdhry argues that the British encouraged karewa as it suited their administrative interests.

The second section titled “Caste, Community and Gender: The Postcolonial

july 9, 2011

Constraints” contains seven chapters which elucidate social processes through the lens of gender. Chowdhry explains the largescale changes in Haryanvi society in terms of increasing agricultural production

through the green revolution, the high levels of prosperity clearly implicated in the contradictory and uneven shifts in cultural ethos and the resultant customs and attitudes. The existence of the veil (ghunghat) for her remains one of the most potent symbols through which women continue to remain subjugated. In spite of their continued high participation in farm work unlike in Punjab and Himachal Pradesh where women were largely withdrawn after the green revolution, they continue to be evaluated in lowly terms. Low estimation of women is manifest through proverbs and folk tales. In other states like in the north-east, women are highly visible in the public sphere but their decisionmaking power is severely restricted . One wonders whether the disappearance of the veil would mean much for women!

Chowdhry aptly makes use of cultural metaphors in demonstrating the persistent gender discrimination despite the indispensability of women as producers and reproducers. The participation of women in this hegemonic ideology of gender inequality marks the hierarchies within based on age. Younger active women are also most vulnerable and subject to strict social controls. The use of proverbs shows the earthy character of the members of Haryanvi society who rationalise gendering as a matter of fact and a “natural” process. She further argues that “new and vastly changed expenditure-consumption patterns, especially in the wake of the green revolution and based upon male priorities, emphasise status symbols and give low priority to women’s needs even in a crucial domestic sphere” (introduction, pxix). A general suspicion about women as “thieves” of food and money colours the local discourse on gender.

Varying Shades of Patriarchy

The centrality of marriage as a matter of the most important social control marks the (im)possibility of their share if any in the landed property. Chowdhry provides

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Economic & Political Weekly


cases engaging with the question of inheritance and dowry. She feels that mere rights in the property do not ensure claims. Through discussions on the brother-sister relationship, she underlines the privileging of the moral over the substantive in terms of women and the claims over property.

Marriage also emerges as a major site for contestation in relation to community control over women’s sexuality. In trying to resolve cases of runaway marriages the existence of gender and caste bias in the judiciary is revealed. An anxious rural community through traditional panchayats, the state machinery and growing policing is increasingly putting pressure on the young to conform. They on the other hand continue to revolt by trying to escape . Disciplining the young through severe social sanctions notwithstanding their legal rights as citizens demonstrates the continuing hold of caste and kinship norms. The growing rigidity on issues of caste endogamy and gotra exogamy through the hardening of postures of the caste panchayats has also been effectively discussed by the author by citing several contentious cases. The possibility of wellto-do families getting away with breaches and the vulnerability of socially weaker families are also interesting pointers to responses to change. Interestingly, these cases reflect anxieties over the democratisation processes, reservations, educational and employment opportunities, growing aspirations and the resistance of dalits. The title of the last chapter says it all, “First our jobs and then our girls: the dominant perceptions on the ‘Rising’ Dalits”. Importantly, she reveals an almost common ideological impulse across castes in regard to the question of breaches in marriage norms and that of “honour.” The hold of tradition is difficult to defy.

Thus the book covers a range of issues. It posits a dense social history of a north Indian state where notwithstanding economic changes, patriarchy acquires varying shades, and rearticulates society to reinvent tradition, though working through the same axis of inequalities, i e, age, gender and caste. This study largely focuses on the Jat history. It would have been interesting to locate other or counter discourses running through the region. Also the greater focus on areas directly affected by the green revolution means that a partial picture of Haryana emerges.

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Much of the discussion in the book is about caste, custom and community issues in rural or semi-urban Haryana society. One would like to learn more about the possibilities of urbanisation, the growing industrial and housing sectors, education and employment in women’s lives. The implications of media, consumption and other globalising forces for the community control may also be contradictory and diverse. Citations of the ambiguities and negotiations within a shifting system in the text offer possibilities for interpretations. The book largely paints Haryana society in darker hues, with the brighter sides of people’s vibrant and cohesive culture taking a back seat.

The book is recommended to all social scientists for its serious scholarship on understanding of a regional culture, to activists for culling out cues for social action and to students for an ideal learning literature that provides an excellent interface between history and anthropology.

Nilika Mehrotra ( is with the Centre for the Study of Social Systems, School of Social Sciences, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.



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Economic Political Weekly

july 9, 2011 vol xlvi no 28

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