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'Nature' of Peasant Nationalism

Review article

‘Nature’ of Peasant Nationalism

Peasants in India’s Non-Violent Revolution: Practice and Theory

by Mridula Mukherjee; Sage Publications, New Delhi, 2004; pp 587, Rs 980.


ny work in the social sciences is an interpretation of society, whether contemporary, or over time, based on the selection of some facts and the omission of others. As pointed out by Zinn, with special reference to history, the exercise of choice with regard to the facts chosen or ignored, reflects the interests of the historian (2001, p 683). Thus, “there is no such thing as a pure fact, innocent of interpretation. Behind every fact presented to the world – by a teacher, a writer, anyone – is a judgment. The judgment that has been made is that this fact is important, and other facts omitted, are not important” (ibid, p 684).

In the light of this preamble, it should be pointed out that Mridula Mukherjee’s book presents an interpretation of Gandhi’s contribution to the national movement (henceforth “Gandhian nationalism”) essentially from the standpoint of a relatively well-placed stratum of the agrarian population. This stratum, which may be said to form the “creamy layer” of those who regard themselves to be cultivators, constitutes the typical “peasants” of her monograph. However, as shown later, there were other layers of cultivators whose interests were ignored by Gandhian nationalism. Therefore, her thesis that Gandhian nationalism appealed to peasants in general is in my view untenable for reasons that are elaborated below.

Mukherjee’s work is divided into two parts: the first part, designated ‘Political Practice in Rural Punjab: The “Heroic” and the “Everyday” ’ focuses on agrarian struggles in Punjab during the late colonial period (beginning from the mid-1930s). The second part, called ‘Interrogating Peasant Historiography: Peasant Perspectives, Marxist Practice and Subaltern Theory’, is essentially interpretative, where she presents her understanding of the participation of peasants in the national movement in the light of the views of other scholars. Though her principal concern is with peasant struggles in Punjab, her arguments linking these struggles with the national movement in general, and specifically with Gandhian nationalism, apply to agrarian struggles elsewhere in India during the above-mentioned period. It is this part that is extremely controversial, to which I shall devote most of my attention.

Mukherjee’s material is based partly on the conventional sources used by historians, including primary sources, such as government archives, official publications (settlement reports, district gazetteers, and village surveys), unofficial publications (such as the collected works of Mahatma Gandhi), newspapers and journals. She has augmented her understanding of the agrarian situation during the period by interviewing a large number of political activists who participated in struggles both in Punjab and elsewhere in the country. These interviews were conducted in various villages and towns in Punjab and other parts of the country.

Much of the descriptive part of Mukherjee’s work concerns agrarian unrest in British Punjab, but it also includes a substantial chapter on struggles in the princely state of Patiala. It is important to note that the areas of unrest were largely in a zone covering central Punjab. Agrarian unrest was virtually absent in western Punjab (which became part of Pakistan following Partition) and in the south-east (which later constituted Haryana). According to the author, the affinity between central Punjab and agrarian unrest is primarily attributable to the catalytic role played by the national movement. Where the national movement was strong, it generated peasant struggles as the cadre who had been inspired by nationalism were also prompted to take up agrarian issues. While this may be broadly true, an important question needs to be addressed here: did the issues causing unrest reflect the interests of all aggrieved strata or only specific sections among them? Needless to say, the grievances of a specific stratum of an agrarian population will be determined by the nature of the oppression experienced by it in an exploitative relationship with a dominant group. Therefore, a satisfactory representation of the nature of exploitation experienced by a particular group is possible only if the agrarian population is rigorously disaggregated so that the differences within it and the corresponding contradictions of interest are foregrounded. This, crucial, analytical exercise is missing in the work of the author. To regard peasants as “inscrutable” (p 375) is hardly enabling for the reader, who at the very least should be provided with a working definition of the term. It is implicitly taken for granted that those who deem themselves to be cultivators constitute the peasantry. But, those who regard themselves as cultivators may in practice live off the labour of genuine cultivators who actually till the land as tenants of the former. Therefore, the use of the term peasant for both categories of cultivators (cultivators in theory and cultivators in practice) is limiting because it has the effect of homogenising significant agrarian differences. Indeed, it will become clear that the term is a major hindrance to the understanding of the varied dimensions of exploitation experienced by diverse sections of the cultivating population.

An Interpretation of Struggle

Mukherjee’s interpretation of the struggles described in the first part of the book revolves round certain critical issues: (i) the agrarian contradictions that prompted peasant struggles; (ii) the connection between agrarian contradictions and the national movement; and (iii) the contribution of the national movement to the resolution of agrarian contradictions.

From Mukherjee’s standpoint, the contradictions within the agrarian structure of Punjab were relatively less important than

Economic and Political Weekly July 29, 2006

those between the national movement and colonialism. While she regards the latter contradiction as primary, class contradictions within the agrarian structure are, by implication, considered by her as secondary because the principal concern of the time was securing freedom from colonial rule. Thus, she regards nationalism as an “almost elemental urge”, which can be matched only by religious faith (p 318). In term of this reasoning “antiimperialism” (which may be read as “nationalism”) was the “only historically appropriate progressive ideology” that appealed to all peasant strata (p 322). Indeed, according to her, the underplaying of secondary contradictions was inevitable (“it was in the very logic of things” (p 367)). Further, the potency of the appeal of nationalism – specifically Gandhian nationalism – was such that it cut across all oppressed agrarian strata (i e, subsuming the “peasantry” at large) and transformed them into a class. It is, therefore, perhaps not surprising that a nuanced appreciation of the significance of the differences within the peasantry becomes a casualty in the author’s work.

What precisely were the differences among the cultivating population of Punjab that are liable to be underplayed by using the blanket term peasantry? An answer to this question is absolutely crucial for two reasons: first, for comprehending the varied nature of agrarian contradictions; and second, for examining the reasons why only some contradictions manifested themselves in overt forms of unrest. Mukherjee is herself not unaware of the nature of these contradictions, as they have been detailed by her elsewhere on the basis of primary and secondary sources pertaining to the late colonial period (1980). The following is an extremely concise picture of inequalities in the agrarian structure drawn from her research, as well as from the work of Bhagwan Josh (1979).

Mukherjee shows that the distribution of land was extremely skewed. For instance, according to data for the late 1930s, owners of holdings above 25 acres each, constituted just 6.3 per cent of the owners, but they controlled 52.8 per cent of the land [Mukherjee 1980: A-51]. On the other hand, those owning up to only 3 acres of land each, constituted 48.8 per cent of the owners, yet they controlled merely 6 per cent of the land [Josh 1979:5]. A substantial proportion of owners were also cultivators: about 48 per cent in the mid-1930s (ibid, pp 8-9).

The concentration of land in the hands of the few compelled not only small holders but also even the landless to seek land for cultivation as tenants. However, such tenants were liable to be evicted arbitrarily. The proportion of land cultivated by these tenants-at-will was substantial: Mukherjee points out that the area under them increased from 35.7 per cent in 1891-92 to about 49 per cent in 1936-37 (1980, p A51). On the other hand, tenants with occupancy rights cultivated only about 8 per cent of the land during the same period [Josh 1979:12].

Thus, cultivators in Punjab subsumed three, somewhat fluid, categories: owners of land, tenants with occupancy rights, and tenants without occupancy rights. Needless to say the grievances of each category reflected its position in the agrarian structure: those of a relatively secure category not being as critical as the grievances of the least secure. For example, the demands of owner-cultivators included the reduction of land revenue and water rates, among other issues. But, as pointed out by Mukherjee herself, the grievances of such cultivators, for instance in the princely state of Patiala, were not a matter of “life and death” (p 246). Far more critical than the grievances of owner-cultivators were those of occupancy tenants, also in Patiala state, who were liable to lose their tenurial status altogether due to circumstances arising from the land settlement in 1907. Mukherjee refers to their agitation as the ‘muzara’ movement (movement of occupancy tenants). Finally, there can be little doubt that insecure tenants-at-will constituted the weakest and most oppressed category of cultivators. Their presence is notable in several areas, for example in the canal colonies (covering the districts of Shahpur, Lyallpur and Montgomery). Such tenants were liable to pay exorbitant rents to the superior, typically upper caste, landholders, and were also subject to a range of arbitrary exactions. Their material and political subordination was compounded by social oppression, as they belonged to various depressed castes. Clearly, the oppression of such tenants was cumulative, as it combined material, political and social dimensions.

The Agrarian Underclass

Mukherjee’s uncritical conceptualisation of the “peasantry” is responsible for her relative neglect of the really oppressed stratum of tenants-at-will. It is such persons who truly constituted the agrarian underclass. It is entirely probable that from their standpoint the primary contradiction was located between them and the superior landholders who were the source of their oppression. To argue, as Mukherjee does, that such contradictions, being internal to the agrarian structure, were secondary, whereas the contradiction with colonialism was primary, shows complete disregard for the lived experience of oppression by depressed agrarian strata. To compound matters, she also argues that such depressed agrarian strata were indifferent to the crucial issue of security of tenure, and all that they desired was a reduction in rents and relief from arbitrary levies and forced labour. She underscores her position by advancing the hypothesis that since “it was usually members of the lower castes and untouchables that took to cultivation on a sharecropping basis …their traditional claim to land was not very clear or strong” (p 478; emphasis added). Therefore, unlike the traditional landowning castes, “their notions of legitimacy did not include a right to the ownership of the land or even to its occupancy” (ibid). For Mukherjee, this is corroborated by the fact that large numbers of low caste tenants-at-will succumbed to the pressure of their superior landholders and relinquished their rights as cultivators when land reforms were introduced in Punjab in the 1950s, whereas tenants from relatively well-placed castes held on to their cultivating rights.

Mukherjee’s position completely ignores ground realities. The power of landholders belonging to dominant castes was liable to smother the assertion of cultivating rights by tenants-at-will belonging to the lower strata in the social hierarchy. Therefore, the eviction of large numbers of tenantsat-will belonging to depressed castes when land reforms were introduced in the 1950s reflected their vulnerability in an acutely asymmetrical agrarian power relationship, rather than their lack of concern for acquiring tenancy rights or their supposedly underdeveloped notions of legitimacy!

Mukherjee’s perception of agrarian contradictions through the lens of Gandhian nationalism lays the ground for her critique of the interpretation of subaltern consciousness by the “subaltern” school of history. The source of the disagreement in the two viewpoints is attributable to the differences in evaluating the significance of Gandhian nationalism. According to the subaltern school, as represented by Mukherjee, the Congress-led national

Economic and Political Weekly July 29, 2006 movement, due to its elitist character, did not address the grievances of subaltern classes, such as the peasantry. Therefore, the grievances of the peasantry were not integral to the national movement, and constituted the agenda of an autonomous domain of politics. On the other hand, according to Mukherjee, the consciousness generated by Gandhian nationalism foregrounded the struggle between nationalism and colonialism, as a consequence of which agrarian contradictions lost their cutting edge, and the entire peasantry acted as a unified class against colonial rule. In terms of strategy, as the emphasis was on issues capable of mobilising the bulk of the peasantry, the leadership practised “class adjustment” (p 370). The ultimate outcome of Gandhian nationalism, according to Mukherjee, was a new revolutionary consciousness, signifying a radical departure from the traditional ideological orientations of the peasantry at large. To quote her, the “massive ideological intervention” made by the Indian National Congress (the organisational manifestation of Gandhian nationalism) “successfully weaned away large sections of the Indian people, including the peasants, from the hold of anti-nationalist and anti-democratic colonial ideologies as well as from the older, traditional, monarchist or absolutist ideologies” (p 532). The entire thrust of the newly acquired radical consciousness was oriented towards ending British rule in India.

A ‘Reactionary’ Nationalism

A critical analysis of a major instance of Gandhian nationalism, which is cited by Mukherjee herself, will reveal that in spite of its principal thrust being anti-colonial, its impact on the prevailing exploitative agrarian social relations was hardly transformative or revolutionary. Indeed, its impact was reactionary because it diverted attention from deeply entrenched relations of domination and exploitation. This example will also make it possible to evaluate the author’s disagreement with the subaltern school on the latter’s characterisation of the national movement as elitist.

One of Mukherjee’s key examples of Gandhian nationalism is the “peasant” movement against the enhancement of land revenue by the colonial administration in Bardoli (a taluka in south Gujarat) in 1928. According to her the movement “demonstrated heroic non-violent resistance” and “electrified the entire country” (pp 390-91), and not just the peasants. However, had she disaggregated those designated as peasants, it would have been clear that Gandhian nationalism inspired mainly the dominant sections of the agrarian population, whose involvement in cultivation was only notional, and that these sections, far from being weaned away from “traditional, monarchist or absolutist ideologies” (Mukherjee’s own words), continued to exploit the subordinate strata of the agrarian population, who actually worked on the land. This is clear from an overview of agrarian conditions in south Gujarat in general [Breman 1993] as well as critical accounts of the Bardoli campaign [Shah 1974; Dhanagare 1983]. The burden of colonial land revenue assessment was borne principally by upper castes, mainly patidars and anavil brahmins, who controlled the land. These groups lived off the labour of lower castes and aboriginal communities. As pointed out by Dhanagare, a large number of landholders in Bardoli “never cultivated the land themselves but subleased it to tenants, or hired labour for cultivation under their personal management” (1983, p 95). Both arrangements were exploitative, but the system of hiring labour, which assumed the form of debt bondage (‘halipratha’ or the ‘hali’ system), was especially so. Ironically, as stated by Dhanagare, Gandhi (the architect of Gandhian nationalism) did not critique this acutely asymmetrical relationship, and only expected the landowners to be compassionate towards their servants (1983, p 92). It is not surprising, therefore, that the Bardoli campaign projected essentially the interests of the dominant landowning castes against the enhancement of land revenue. While it is true that the subordinate sections of the agrarian population constituted the mass base of the campaign, their participation was primarily because of their servile obligations to their dominant caste patrons, rather than because of being stirred by the injustices of the colonial regime [Shah 1974:101; Dhanagare 1983:97]. Hence, to maintain, as Mukherjee does, that Gandhian nationalism somehow welded together all sections of the peasantry into a class, in spite of their internal contradictions (the so-called secondary contradictions), is, to say the least, a travesty of the reality of extremely exploitative agrarian class relations. Indeed, this criticism may be extended to a whole range of agrarian movements during the 20th century against the excesses of the colonial regime or their protégés the zamindars. In

Economic and Political Weekly July 29, 2006

general, those who dominated the countryside in social, economic, and political terms, spearheaded the movements, and the lower strata were obliged to collaborate with them because of their dependent status [Pouchepadass 1980].

A convincing validation of the standpoint of the subaltern school that the interests of the masses at large were not really addressed by the national movement is provided by Aloysius (1998). He argues that the import of Gandhian nationalism was principally the displacement of the colonial state by an independent one (ibid, pp 220-25). Further, as revealed by the Bardoli campaign, the mobilisation of the lower strata of the rural masses was not a direct response to colonialism; rather, their involvement was built around their obligations towards the dominant who were the main initiators of the campaign. Thus, as summed up by Aloysius, Gandhian nationalism was “vertical instead of horizontal” (ibid, p 203). Moreover, as the hierarchical, iniquitous, social order had not been contested during the national movement, the nation that came into being following independence simply replicated the past and was the anti-thesis of what Aloysius terms as popular democracy. Hence, the principal effect of Gandhian nationalism was “a mere change in ruling personnel, devoid of any serious social change” (ibid, p 220). There can be little doubt, therefore, that Mukherjee considerably overstates the significance of the peasantry as a class.

In the light of the above, one of Mukherjee’s major conclusions needs to be viewed with extreme scepticism. She asserts that the unified peasantry were instrumental in achieving two primary goals of the national movement: “independence from colonial rule and a democratic political structure… in post-colonial India” (p 536). The latter, according to her, has been a continuing phenomenon since independence, for it “has now survived for over 50 years” (ibid).

Having already shown that Gandhian nationalism was not truly transformative – indeed, as it was conservative – Mukherjee’s view that it established a democratic political structure is completely unfounded. Randhir Singh offers a radically different perspective on the character of India’s polity 50 years after independence (2006, pp 1053-60). His standpoint, which reflects the experience of the underclass in general, underscores an important methodological issue in the social sciences, which was posed at the beginning of this review: that the interpretation of the consequences of major historical events will depend upon the perspective adopted by a scholar. As such, the interpretation of the consequences of India’s independence from the standpoint of the poor and the oppressed is liable to reveal the perversion of democracy rather than its achievement.

Randhir Singh pointedly critiques the post-colonial “national project” as “no radical break” with the social order prevailing at the time of independence (ibid, p 1054). Indeed, there is an explicit suggestion that the post-colonial state betrayed the people at large as “the hope for equity and distributive justice…was largely belied” (ibid, p 1055). The denial of the fruits of freedom to the marginalised is attributable to something fundamental: it is precisely because the elite powered national movement did not in practice grapple with the internal social contradictions revolving around caste, class and gender. As pointed out by Randhir Singh, the end of colonial rule occurred while “leaving the old socioeconomic and state-bureaucratic structures largely intact” (ibid, p 1054). As such, it was inevitable that the society bequeathed by the national movement was constrained by its own legacy to be antithetical to the interests of the marginalised.

The arguments cited above are strong and convincing, and I can only offer some supplementary observations to demonstrate that Mukherjee’s inferences on the revolutionary impact of Gandhian nationalism are unfounded. The following basic questions are relevant in this connection:

(i) what is the relation between the dominant classes and state power? and (ii) does the conduct of the state suggest that it has been able to transcend the interests of the dominant classes and establish a regime marked by social, economic, and political justice for the underclass?

Agrarian Question in 1952

An apt way of answering these questions is to examine in brief the handling of the agrarian question in Punjab, which is central to Mukherjee’s concerns. The focus here will be on the conditions of the tenantry on the eve of agrarian reforms in 1952.

Broadly speaking, the picture conformed to the facts presented earlier, whereby tenants-at-will cultivated a substantial proportion of the land. According to one survey, tenants-at-will cultivated between 30 and 40 per cent of the area; on the other hand, tenants with occupancy rights cultivated between 7 and 10 per cent of the cultivated area [Gill 1989:A-79]. Ironically, the insecure tenantry were subjected to large-scale evictions when tenancy legislation was enacted in the mid-1950s, ostensibly to protect their rights. The irony is aggravated by the fact that the legislative and executive arms of the state that set the reforms in motion, and under whose governance their implementation was to take place, were peopled by congressmen. They were the very products of Gandhian nationalism, possessed of revolutionary consciousness, as Mukherjee would have one believe! Indeed, the enormous gap between the principle and practice of the norms of social justice on the part of the Punjab government was revealed in a report, prepared under the auspices of the very same government, on the distribution of surplus evacuee land following the Partition of the country into India and Pakistan [Ladejinsky 1977:542-50].1 After the rehabilitation of refugees from Pakistan on the land left behind by their Punjabi Muslim counterparts, a vast area of surplus evacuee land (amounting to 3,74,000 acres) still remained with the central government. This land was transferred to the state government of Punjab in 1961 for redistribution, and it was understood that the beneficiaries would be the landless, especially the dalits among them. But, in fact, the land was appropriated by civil and police officials and by influential politicians, including the speaker of the assembly and ministers holding key portfolios, such as agriculture and development. The entire exercise was a mockery of the spirit and substance of agrarian reform, colliding head on with the tenets of justice and equity embodied in the preamble of the Constitution. The contempt with which the new masters of post-colonial Punjab held the underprivileged sections of society is evident from the following statement of Gill: “the very elite of… Punjab society, [comprising] individuals in commanding political positions, lawmakers, upholders of law or moulders of public opinion, reversed the process of land reforms” (1989, p A-82; emphasis added).

Punjab is by no means unique among states in India guilty of subverting the land reform programme, for its record in this respect conforms to an all-India pattern, with few exceptions. The overall scenario of inequity in the countryside is replicated in the urban-industrial sector. Thus, it has

Economic and Political Weekly July 29, 2006 been shown that the market-fuelled pattern of economic growth that was initiated 15 years ago in the name of “structural adjustment” is “narrowly based in a small elite in the organised sectors of the economy” [Kumar 2005:49]. Therefore, the “peasants” who held the banner of Gandhian nationalism, and who are the dramatis personae of Mukherjee’s monograph, have bequeathed a polity that is the antithesis of equity and social justice. Indeed, the distortions in the pattern of growth have become “the breeding ground for disillusionment and disappointment of the masses with the rulers of the day” [Kabra 2005:15]. One striking response to the denial of social, economic, and political justice to the marginalised is the emergence of Naxalism in India. In spite of the fact that the phenomenon has entailed the practice of some degree of unstructured violence in recent years, the appeal of its ideology is rooted in an iniquitous social order. According to a recent report, the influence of the movement has spread in the course of the last year and a half from 76 districts in nine states to 118 districts in 12 states [Ramakrishnan 2005:6].

There are, then, adequate reasons for rejecting the principal arguments of Mukherjee’s monograph. Despite the enormous labour that has gone into the

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making of this work, it fails to substantiate her thesis regarding the impact of Gandhian nationalism on the peasantry at large. The stratified character of those designated as peasants and the distorted pattern of development in India since independence strongly suggest that the interpretation of the legacy of Gandhian nationalism could be radically different from that offered by Mukherjee.




1 Ladejinsky’s observations are based on the report of the Harchand Singh Committee, which had been appointed by the government of Punjab in 1972 to inquire into the irregularities in the distribution of evacuee land.


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