Dirk Kolff, born in Rotterdam, the Netherlands, in 1938. Ph.D. from Leiden University. Professor of Modern South Asian History at Leiden University
Fellow (1 September 1999 – 30 June 2000)
In the ten months of my NIAS fellowship I completed three quarters of a book on a few districts in North India during early colonial rule. This study is mainly based on the India Office archival material now kept in the British Library in London. Over the last six or so years, I had paid a large number of visits to these archives, bringing home microfilms and extensive notes. The archives of this period are abundant and rich. My aim being to do as much justice as I could to the dynamics of peasant society and to the administrative realities at the district level, my study has been restricted to what were only two districts to the Northeast of Delhi in 1820. After having described the violent nature of peasant conflict management on this semi-pastoralist frontier of the British Empire, the question is asked what executive measures were taken by the colonial state to establish a measure of control in this problematic area. At the outset, the British style of government is shown as being peculiarly ill-suited to pacify this kind of society, focusing as it did on its courts of justice, the prima instruments of control according to the axiomas of the British Indian constitution of 1793. I then argue that the exigencies of district practice are the main force driving the government in the direction of greater executive power in the hands of so-called magistrates. The case of the Merath district in the early 1820s shows that strong measures taken by the magistracy, in this case against a combination of police officers spreading terror in the villages, provoke disciplinary action on behalf of a judiciary that fears losing its constitutional primacy and administrative initiative. In a separate chapter, I describe how, in an exceptional and marginal district, a strong executive is experimented with the Calcutta government in a limited manner. Lasting change, however, resulted from protests from within peasant society itself, in this case against the excesses of a number of tax farmers who, especially during the early 1820s in the Saharanpur district, succeeded in acquiring extensive estates. Such Indian reactions, rather than changing ideologies in Europe, are, I argue, ultimately responsible for the reforms begun by Lord William Bentinck from 1830 onwards.