Masters of arts in development studies

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Chapter 1

In the early 1950s, Late His Majesty the third king (Druk Gyalpo here after) Jigme Dorji Wangchuk (who reigned from 1952-1972) enacted and implemented agrarian reform. This led to the redistribution of land to the landless and also resulted in the end of the so called ‘serf’ system that had existed since the 17th century. Alongside this changes there was also an effort to state modernization. Academic research on this subject is limited and in fact very little is known about the agrarian history of Bhutan. In the complete absence of any published literature it is important to make use of oral history sources while it is still possible to ‘rescue’ these important dimensions of Bhutan’s past for future generations and scholarship. Those people who can still recall the 1950s agrarian reforms are now getting very old or have already passed away and so with them, important historical knowledge is disappearing.

In the absence of extensive research in this area, Bhutan’s agrarian history tends to be categorized in the European terms, and relying on European stereotypes of ‘feudalism’ and ‘serfdom’. Bhutan is not even talked about in any of the literature and debates on the Asian agrarian reforms. For this reason, this exploratory study, based on oral history and limited secondary resources attempts to reconstruct an understanding of the agrarian reform. In the literature on agrarian reform it is recognized that the politics of agrarian reform is critical, and that it is usually the politics underlying agrarian reform rather than economics issues that determines much of its outcomes, successes and failures. All authors recognize that agrarian reform is a fundamentally political process given that it involves transferring assets and power, transforming labour and tenure relations which are embedded in power relations, etc.1(Bernstein 2004, Griffin et al. 2002,Inayatullah. 1980,Sobhan 1993,Putzel 1992)

This study therefore is an attempt to elucidate and explore this inter-relation between agrarian reform and the political process of state modernization, particularly in light of the seismic events that were taking place around Bhutan at the time. For example the communist revolution in China, the Chinese invasion of Tibet and India’s independence all had strong geo-political significance for Bhutan during that time. This study involves trying to figure out what were the actual agrarian conditions and structures in the pre reform period in order to understand the starting point from which political processes shaped the agrarian reform. In turn, this also included an engagement with the discourses of Asian ‘feudalism’ and ‘serfdom’. Given that these terms have come to be used in the present to characterize the past, even by current Bhutanese elites and scholars, despite the fact that these terms originate from Europe and that there is considerable debate as to their appropriateness in closely related fields (such as in scholarship on agrarian history of Tibet). In other words, part of our task of clarifying the past involves deciphering the terminologies that have come to be used to describe the past. While the main goal of the study is to focus on unravelling the past rather than the use of these terminologies today, it is nonetheless important to consider the relevance of language and terminology in shaping our understanding of history and events. To understand the process of reform at the local level, the study also examines how implementation of agrarian reform is remembered in one village in Eastern Bhutan.

The main argument in this paper is that the 1950s agrarian reform took place within the political system as a key element in the strategy of the Third Druk Gyalpo to build a modern nation state. To a large degree this required restricting power of the political and landed elites in various regions. This in turn required restructuring the traditional political administration of the state which were rooted in the land. Hence, agrarian reform became an effective tool to break down these land-based centres of power. Therefore the primary focus of the agrarian reform was state modernization and centralization of power (from the local rulers) which allowed legitimizing the state as a whole. However, even after the centralization of power, and re-distribution of land in the rural areas, there is still some existence of former servile character retained into the current period past 1950s, such as share cropping transposed into the more modern context. As such we could say that the reform had not totally changed everything. We can further postulate that the primary motivation for the reform was to establish the appearance of a modern state to assure sovereignty, given the prevailing regional geopolitics situations around Bhutan. Although not much of evidence is built, it could still be the driving force for implementing agrarian reform in the country at that particular time.

Another argument is that it is more appropriate to use the local ‘indigenous’ terminology to express the ‘traditional’ system pre reform which had its own unique elements, rather than trying to force it into a universal notion of ‘serfdom/feudalism’ which undermine our understanding of these traditional systems. When we actually look at the past system and notice that it can not easily be compared with European ‘feudalism’ (or other Asian ‘feudalisms’), we can conclude that the prevailing representation of the past agrarian system is an ideological element of state modernization.

This study is largely based on oral history interviews with elderly persons aged 70 and above. In total 35 interviews were held, in three categories. The first category of interview was conducted among those retired senior government officials (Ex Dasho’s2) who had directly served both second and the third Druk Gyalpo in the 20th century. These ex Dashos (aged 85 and above) were the rich source of information for such explorative study and get their experience documented. The Second category included fourteen members who were academicians, bureaucrats, parliamentarians and some government officials. The members included in this category were those who has the experience and rich knowledge about the agrarian reform, process and its change, while the third category is the mix between former land owners (aristocrats), and those who received land during reform, while some of them were with conscious memories of the total process and who has lived through those years. There were eighteen people in this category. There is also an equal representation of male and females in this sample, thus the findings from the study would not be gender biased. The respondents were selected based on purposive and snow ball sampling from among those with conscious memories, while some were based on the recommendations of government officials and supervisors. The choice of research area is based in eastern Bhutan because of the fact that the ‘serf’ system prevailed mostly in the eastern Bhutan. This is also indicated by most elderly respondents, government officials and reading across historical literature (Ura 1995).

Semi structured interviews were conducted with those officials while it was pure oral(history) interview with the rest of the respondents which took more than two hours with an individual in most cases. Very little secondary data was used, as no archival material was available, with the exception of the national assembly (parliament) resolutions from that time. No other scholarly or academic research documents were available on the agrarian reform in Bhutan. Some of the Tibet studies scholarship proved helpful as a source of ideas. The medium of conversation used in the interview was basically the local dialect (kurtoep kha). However, Dzongkha (national language) and English were used intermittently. In reporting most of the interviews the names, dates and place are anonymised for reasons of confidentiality. Only in certain cases where permission was granted are the above specification shown.

This study has intentionally been given the title an exploratory study, to underline that it was undertaken in a very limited time frame (four weeks of field research) and focuses on a single village for in-depth study. It is beyond the scope of my research to produce quantitative data on such matters as land use or land distributed before and after reform. The findings from the village case study cannot be generalized to the country as a whole.

This paper consists of five chapters. Chapter two provides the theoretical framework, based on a literature review of the politics of agrarian reform and the relationship between agrarian reform and state modernization, and the discourses on ‘feudalism’ and ‘serfdom’ (and its relationship to politics of agrarian reform). Chapter three outlines the Bhutanese context (national level) summarizing what is known or can be reconstructed about agrarian conditions prior to reform, the agrarian reform and state modernization. Chapter four, the village case study analyses how agrarian reform is remembered at the village level, to shed more light on the agrarian structure prior to the reform, the actual implementation of the reform and the possible transformations in the immediate period after. Chapter five closes the study with brief concluding reflections.

Chapter 2
Agrarian reform and state modernization:
Conceptual framework

The broad theoretical framework applied to this study is the politics of agrarian reform and the inter relationships between agrarian reform and state modernization, which also involves some discussion of ‘serfdom/feudalism’ and its relationship to the politics of agrarian reform.

This chapter will therefore articulate on the affiliated literatures by different scholars/authors who have delved more closely in political processes of agrarian reform and state modernization. In understanding the contemporary discourses on the ‘serfdom/ feudalism’ there doesn’t seem to be much introspection by the Bhutanese scholars so this leads to exploring the Tibet studies literature.

2.1 Agrarian reform and state modernization

Agrarian reform remains a highly contested issue to policy makers and scholars alike. Many scholars as discussed in the beginning studying agrarian reform debate across economic aspects like productivity, farm size and efficiency. Regardless of the debate all author’s agree to the general consensus that the success or failure that effectively transfers power/resources from elites to common people varies politically at all levels.

In particular, the generally accepted insight from the literature on the agrarian reform in Asia is that in the case of successful agrarian reform there was a serious threat to the power of the elites which induced them or forced them to relinquish power and their control over land and/or labour. This occurred either under conditions of revolution where landlords were overthrown such as China and Vietnam, or in situations of the post war occupation and major external geo political pressures, such as South Korea and Taiwan.3 On the other hand unsuccessful cases associated with stalled or failed agrarian reform are observed under socially conservative political regimes such as in various Latin American countries and the Phillipines. These failures were largely due to the fact that elites were able to subvert the process, maintain power and control over land and labour thereby able to undermine agrarian reform.

Successful agrarian reform involves the redistribution of natural resources such as arable land, water and forest. Land and resource tenure systems are embedded in power relations that structure the relationship of people to these resources and in turn the relations between people themselves. Not surprisingly, whether it is domestic or geo political concerns which play the major role in enacting and implementing reforms, these processes usually evoke tensions and conflict. Land is what gives rural people a sense of ‘rootedness’ and identity which define personal, social and political prestige. There are instances innorth India where people kill each other for land regardless of the kinship (Agarwal 1994, Potter et al. 2008). Putzel defines agrarian reform as follows:

‘The term agrarian reform implies not only the physical redistribution of land but a transformation in rural relations. It has been adopted by the advocates of redistributive reform who realize that land redistribution must be accompanied by other changes in the agriculture production structure, such as the introduction of credit programmes, the provision of extension services, or the reform of farm input and produce markets that allow beneficiaries profitably to engage in farming’ (Putzel 1992:3)

Thus, agrarian reform includes land reform but has also a broader connotation, both reshaping agrarian structure and transforming labour regimes with varying impact on rural livelihoods. As a result it remains closely connected to state modernization whereby politically we can see varying impacts. Putzel further goes on to say that agrarian reform was at the centre of the state’s political agenda in Asia largely as a reaction to the emerging revolutionary movements supported by the peasant population. Reform can be based on either ‘revolutionary’, ‘conservative’ or ‘liberal’ principles.

In the ‘revolutionary’ approach such as in Vietnam and China, the communist party managed to involve local peasants in the process and this set an example for radical movements throughout the rest of Asia in the post war period. In the ‘conservative’ approach the state protects the individual property rights but makes some resources available through resettlement programmes and new investment in agriculture. This approach was often adopted in contexts where genuine agrarian reform failed or stalled like the Philippines and other parts of Southeast Asia, India and various Latin American countries. A ‘liberal’ approach to land reforms is reflected in the reforms initiated by the US military government in post-war South Korea and Japan aiming to achieve redistributive land reform with the larger political objective of countering the communist threat. This also led to the expropriation of land from the elites and the conversion of tenants’ rights into ownership rights through the imposition of a low land ceiling. As we see in the case of Korea (Griffin et al. 2002) there was strong popular support for communism in Korea that the Americans were trying to counteract. Therefore land reform that involved giving land to the poor peasants was one way of counteracting the support for socialist/communist revolution. In this case agrarian reform is being used as the way to create certain types of state society relations that support development projects, and the centralization and legitimation of the state, as well as undermine traditional landed elites.

Alternatively, we see in the case of Tibet (Goldstein 1991:816-818) states that between the period (1920 – 1925), His Holiness the 13th Dalai Lama (head of the state) had instituted ‘reforms’ and ‘innovations’ aimed to modernize the Tibetan state. This included building the military regime, however, the central government lacked resources to keep up its standing army as the ‘regular income’ was not sufficient enough and this had led to increased taxation to the ‘monasteries’ and the ‘aristocrats’. On the other hand the monasteries and the aristocrats were preventing from this reform. The Tibetan ‘politico-religious’ system had a conflictual character and there was a lack of consensus among the political ruling elites. The monasteries continued maintaining their basis of power. As a result the state modernization was a failed attempt. In addition in 1950 -1951 the peoples Republic of china ‘confronted’ Tibet and many aristocrats and monasteries cooperated with the Chinese.  In 1959 the Chinese invasion had finally led to the collapse of the Tibetan state and the flight of the 14th His Holiness the Dalai Lama4.

These comparisons help us understand the interplay between agrarian reform and the politics of state modernization where not only the balance of power within the country, but also major external geo political threat may be the underlying concerns behind the enactment of reforms and the success or failure of their implementation. This underlines the relevance of (Brenner 1976) influential arguments on the ‘dialectical’ understanding of the classical Marxist that power equation between elites, peasants, commoners and the state plays an important role in modernization process and implementing reforms. Next we look at the ‘serfdom/feudalism’ discourses, which are an underlying element in some of the issues discussed above.

2.2 Discourse on ‘serfdom’/ ‘feudalism’ and Definitions

Many western scholars defined Bhutan in the1950s as a ‘feudal’ society characterized by ‘serfdom’(Mathou 2000:614, Olesen 1985:25, Sinha 1991:xix, White 2007:14)5 and subsequently the Bhutanese scholars started to repeat these characterizations (Dorji 2008:62, Kinga et al. 2002:18, Pain and Deki 2004:429, Tshering 1993:13). For this matter a critical assessment of these views requires an understanding of what exactly was the agrarian structure consisted of prior to the reforms.6 We often contrast the ‘feudal’ past with the ‘modern’ present. The discourse of ‘serfdom/feudalism’ may serve to promote an exaggerated, ideological representation of the past which in turn serves to idealize and legitimize the present system. Thus, empirical from the findings can hopefully helps break away from the internalization of crude stereotypes and promote a better understanding of the unique features of Bhutan’s agrarian past (See chapter three and four)

One main issue is the ambiguity of the terms involved. The terms ‘feudal’ and ‘serfdom’ actually originate from medieval Europe7. Marxist scholarship, influenced by the study of European feudalism, tends to see serfdom as a form of economic exploitation in which elites have full authority over land and labour. This is stated as ‘inseparable’ from ‘feudalism’ which they argued is a ‘universal’ stage in the ‘evolution’ of society. On the other hand others who see serfdom as a common element in feudal society but not necessarily tied to feudal society as in medieval Europe, and finally some see serfdom not at all linked with feudalism (Bloch 1961:441-448).

Noting that ‘Serfdom/feudalism’ is viewed through various lenses, we will look at some definitions. Bloch, the influential French historian defines feudalism broadly as:

‘A subject peasantry; widespread use of the service tenement (i.e. the fief) instead of salary, which was out of the question; the supremacy of a class of specialized warriors; ties of obedience and protection which bind man to man, within the warrior class, assume the distinctive form called vassalage; fragmentation of authority leading inevitably to disorder and in the midst of all this, the survival of other forms of association, family, state, of which the latter, during the second feudal age was to acquire renewed strength. Such then seem to be the fundamental features of European feudalism’ (Bloch 1961:446)

What we can understand from Bloch is the classic characterization of the Europe feudal that had a few ‘hegemonic’ rulers, owning all the resources and having the right to use extra economic coercion with the serfs8. While the differentiation of feudal and serfdom is also seen from some Marxist scholars, like (Sweezy and Hilton 1978:33) who define feudalism in terms of serfdom. Feudalism is ‘an economic system in which ‘serfdom’ is the predominant relation of production and in which production is organized in and around the manorial estate of the lord’. ‘Serfdom’ is regarded as an appropriation of peasants who are bound to the lords in feudal society. Sweezy further goes on to say that ‘serfdom has at different times and in different regions been associated with different forms of economic organization’ (ibid: 33). What we can understand from the above is that while serfdom may be used to describe the certain serf type system the agrarian system may or may not be feudal wherein it can have similar characterization but need not be restricted only to Europe.

In the scholarly discourses around Tibet, the use of the term ‘serfdom/feudal’ is largely rejected. In fact many authors (Aziz 1978, Coleman 1998, Goldstein (1971a, 1971b), Miller, 1988) argued extensively against the use of this characterization9. Even those who use the term ‘serfdom’ often agree that ‘feudalism’ is not the right term in the Tibetan context. For instance, Goldstein defines serfdom as follows:

‘Serfdom therefore is a system of economic production in which elite controls both land resources and the critical labour force (serfs) it needs to produce foodstuffs from the land. serfdom guarantees this labour force without burdening the lord with the need to either provide direct food and housing for the laborers (as would be the case [of] slavery) or compete for labour in a market context. It may exist as one alternative system of production in a society or as the only one’ (Goldstein 1986:82-83)

Goldstein’s definition above holds that ‘serfdom’ is the appropriate term for the particular type of relationship between the aristocrats, land lords and the peasant but that ‘feudalism’ has larger dimensions in terms of the social structure, which do not apply in this case. He goes on to say that serfdom can have varied meanings across space and time but not necessarily all the characteristics of classical European feudalism. He feels that serfdom is fairly accurate term for lack of a better word. Every one disagrees with the term feudal, while serfdom is also rejected by some authors.10This is mainly due to the recognition of specific features such as relative mobility of the peasants, which are obscured in (for example) official Chinese discourse on the Tibetan past. The use of indigenous words for agrarian relations and their traditional meaning/elements gets lost in this universalisation of the term.

Conversely, in Bhutan there doesn’t seem to be much introspection or debate on the use of these terms that scholars apparently accept and use to describe history. They may not have been aware of the debates and political connotations surrounding these terms .For example (Wangchuk 2000) argued that these were not relevant terms for Bhutan, but he was not able to assert his arguments and went on considering the use of the term even mentioning the word ‘slave’ (ibid: 1) to describe the peasants.

‘Another compelling explanation for Bhutan to be labeled feudal may be that the western scholars who study Bhutan have been trained as Tibetologists. They look to Tibet for causal explanation of not [only] historical events in Bhutan but also the countries entire socio-cultural systems in general’ (Wangchuk 2000:4).

As the earlier discussions show this was actually the most contested term in Tibet and possibly the Tibetologist are aware on the discourses. Thus we cannot conclude the origin of the term in Bhutan. This needs more exploration and careful study.11 Wangchuk goes on to say that

‘The vast majority of peasants were freemen (to use a ‘feudal’ term), either ow[n]ing private lands or ‘sharecropping’ for wealthier families, monasteries and other elite[s]. They are even today referred to as ‘minap’, loosely translated as ‘ignorant people’ or ‘people in the dark’ but nevertheless free. Some were ‘drap’ or ‘serfs’ in the true ‘feudal’ sense’ (ibid: 7)

This would imply that while servile status and relationships were found, they involved a minority of the population and therefore it would be incorrect to characterize the entire system as built on the foundation of ‘serfdom’. As we will see in Chapters three and four, empirical research largely supports this view, although the local terminologies for the different agrarian statuses and relationships may differ from those used by Wangchuk.

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