Enquiries into the Political Organizaton of Harappan Society.
On the one hand, there are those who feel the need for a critical evaluation of the methodology that has been adopted in the practice of the discipline. They insist on a thoughtful, theoretical approach towards research methodology, an example of which is K. Paddayya's recent research in Budhihal. Suggestions for the development of robust theoretical frameworks, capable of checking various aspects of individual research design, have not meant that theory building in the context of their work 'is done without even the elementary exercise of data collection and analysis', as Lahiri thinks. Rather, having realized that the 'blue collar drudgery of careful empirical study' is neither atheoretical, nor an independent tool for study, attention is being given to factors that guide the choice of research designs, representation and interpretations. Deliberating on the problems that can arise in the representation of the political structure of a society from material remains alone, Ratnagar declares that 'we cannot escape the primary problem of defining the unit of study on the ground. This remains a fundamental problem in archaeological research' |since~ 'archaeology cannot produce check lists of material culture criteria for aspects of political organization'. An awareness that the material data alone poses severe limitations in the construction of evidence has prompted her to adopt a comparative approach in her study of the Harappan polity.
The other group, to which Lahiri and Chakrabarti belong, is of the opinion that the realities of the Indian subcontinent are such that scientific techniques of data recovery, quantitative techniques in sampling and collection are more important than an indulgence in abstract theoretical formulations regarding the research methodology. This group of pseudo-scientists is more concerned with techniques than with the method of practice; and their obsession with the past is limited to unreflective classification, identification and creation of chronological sequences for the excavated data. They justify their approach by invoking the paucity of 'scientific' excavation practices, lack of radiocarbon dates for most of the cultural sequences and poor analysis of artefacts due to the lack of sophisticated implements, such as the computer. A good example of rubbing blame on the archaeological record is Chakrabarti's book and his reasons for writing it.
Providing a summary of the sporadic attempts at excavating and exploring Bangladesh from the 19th century to the present time, Chakrabarti writes in his introduction that 'as a result of this approach, the archaeological sequence of the country as a whole and the overall pattern of the growth of settlements in different parts of the country are only imperfectly understood. The basic purpose of the present work is to assess the currently available archaeological data related to these issues'. As far as this reader understands, the issue that most needs attending to by archaeologists working on Bangladesh is the conduction of excavations based on problem-oriented research projects. Since this has also been the author's constant refrain throughout the book (including the summary at the end), one wonders why the he did not take the opportunity presented in his sporadic fact-collecting enterprise in the Lalmai hills to expose the Palaeolithic horizon systematically. Instead, a descriptive text on Ancient Bangladesh from the Palaeolithic to the 13th century AD through the compilation of existing published and unpublished sources is presented by the author as his justification for filling the lacuna in the archaeological knowledge of the region. Perhaps it can be suggested that the creation of chrono-cultural sequences for a region based on existing sources does not in any manner obliterate the issue of scholarly negligence towards the region. Chakrabarti mentions that the history of Bangladesh (Bengal) was consistently connected with that of the Indian subcontinent. The political sequences he builds up for this region are derived from the periodization prevalent in the history of north and east India. He states that 'even though there were many kings with significance only in the scheme of regional history, Bengal was closely linked to the cross-currents of political history right from Kashmir to Karnataka. . . . In no case was Bengal isolated from the mainstream of events in the rest of the subcontinent'. Therefore, as the author himself specifies, his focus is essentially on a region of the Indian subcontinent. But nowhere does he define his concept of a region. It seems that Chakrabarti is unaware of the fact that he is writing a regional history where the interplay of man-made and natural factors had shaped specific cultural processes, providing the area with its own kind of past and historical boundaries. Otherwise it becomes difficult to explain the fact that, despite a chapter on geographical details and a subsection in the summary called 'the geographical setting and ancient historical divisions', the author fails to make connections between the various landforms, soils, climates, rivers and the human habitation they had or had not supported, within the vast temporal span he considers. By failing to focus on the regional aspects of cultural sequences on which the book concentrates, Chakrabarti makes the contradictions in the title of his book an inherent feature of the text as well. If we reflect upon the kinds of history that had been written for the Indian subcontinent till a couple of decades back, we find that excessive importance given to political histories helped in the creation of a uniform past which was forced as a strait-jacket over great spatial lengths of the peninsula. The realization that this feature aided in masking all variations in Indian history has led to the writing of lucid historical commentaries on different regions of the subcontinent. A concern with regional histories has helped in promoting intellectual curiosity towards aspects of the past not considered by writers of ancient political histories. Chakrabarti had ample opportunities to explore a virgin area that has no history of serious research. Instead of an unreflective synthesis of 'archaeological sources', one wishes that the author had explored the possibilities provided by the disciplines of history and archaeology to write the history of a region which in the present context of world politics is recognized as Bangladesh.
For Lahiri the specific issues are
1 to understand the utilization of certain specific raw materials by cultures in different periods,
2 to delineate the probable areas that could have supplied the raw materials to these cultures, and
3 on that basis to chart out directions of trade routes in and across distinct zones.
According to the author 'these are very specific archaeological issues which, if considered for the subcontinent as a whole over our chosen period, will highlight not merely the arterial lines of communication, but also their significance in different periods'. Why these issues are 'archaeological' and not historical has not been explained, leading the reader to assume that the author's preoccupation with archaeology is limited to all analyses primarily concerned with non-textual material evidence. Moreover, why did the author consider only a particular set of data, in this case raw materials of non-local artefacts, and overlook related sources like intra- and inter-site patterns, presence or absence of distinct trading communities within the settlements and questions regarding the capacity of particular cultures, especially Neolithic and Chalcolithic, to conduct 'trade'?
Lahiri makes no attempt to distinguish between the terms 'trade' and 'exchange'. The use of both terms interchangeably, and therefore indiscriminately, for societies as varied as Neolithic, Chalcolithic and empire states, not only ignores the differences between the two forms of socio-economic activities and their implications in the process of culture change, but also masks the variations within the social, political and economic structures inherent in the regional fabric of India's past. Moreover, the nature of trade or exchange amongst various communities would not have remained uniform over a period of 3000 years in a spatial length covering the whole of modern India, even if the routes of communication across the country can be successfully charted. Had the author regarded this aspect of history and written her treatise on routes of communication accordingly, the false and static nature of past economics which this book portrays could have been somewhat reduced. It seems that the use of the term 'archaeology' in the title of the book gets reduced to a mere cataloguing of a specific kind of data, and their probable area of procurance. Surely, interpretations regarding 'trade' and 'exchange' involving various communities over a very long temporal span require a more intellectually rigorous treatment.
In stark contrast to the manner in which the past has been treated by Lahiri and Chakrabarti, Ratnagar uses the disciplines of archaeology, history and anthropology to
1 establish a reasoned inference for the existence of a state (or several states) and
2 to suggest possible forms state organization may have taken in the Harappan context.
She employs ethnographic, textual and material sources of other known examples of state societies to arrive at the first aim of deriving a probable structure of early state organization. The inferences of such an organization are then compared to the Harappan material data. Commenting on the problem faced in this particular manner of using analogy, Ratnagar is of the opinion that 'data on similar states do not tell us what MH |Mature Harappan~ conditions were: they only suggest what questions we can ask'. A discussion in the first two chapters of the book regarding the scope of the methodology used is an important contribution made by Ratnagar to the field of writing on Indian archaeology. Methodological discussions of individual research projects are needed to highlight the fact that the archaeological record is not an isolated phenomenon waiting to be discovered through scientific and quantitative techniques. These discussions reiterate the basic premise of the discipline, namely, that the source material is itself a mental construct and therefore theory dependent. Well-written chapters on research methodology thus explicate the importance of theoretical formulations within the disciplinary realms of archaeology, a feature ignored by the previous two authors in their respective books. Ratnagar's proposals for the Mature Harappan political organization conform to the model she conceptualizes to represent the earliest forms of state throughout the world. In these early state societies, market systems and moneyed economy were absent, and the technology used was simple. The societies nursed distinct social stratification between the ruler and the ruled, despite the fact that kinship obligations were not abandoned and the bureaucracy not well established. As the author herself states, to a large extent her structure of an early state is based on Diakonoff's idea of what 'the state sector' is. Ratnagar finds evidence of labour mobilization by the state sector in the Harappan context and suggests that this may have been the earliest form of surplus extraction, possible because of communal ownership and management of resources and reciprocal relationships between the ruler and the ruled. Evidence of labour mobilized by the Harappan state is seen in the degree and kind of craft specialization from the Harappan sites, and in the grid-planned and therefore implanted cities of the Mature Harappan period. She suggests that labour mobilization was a deliberate policy of the Harappan state to promote subsistence and craft production. And in order to facilitate the process of mobilization, the state organized the distribution of tools and equipment to the populace. According to her, 'in Harappan archaeology implanted settlements and the metal stone-blade tools may well be the best evidence for state organized production and distribution'. In Ratnagar's analysis Mohenjodaro emerges as the political centre and the Mature Harappan polity unified most probably under one state.
Her arguments are worked within the frame of available Harappan material data, and her theoretical assumptions are empirically grounded. However, despite the author's contention that she will not 'proceed with a theory of the early state, but allow the archaeological evidence to lead the discussions', the reader finds them rejected at times. For example, features of the early state societies conceptualized for the Harappan polity such as communal ownership and management of resources, kinship structures and labour service being the major form of surplus mobilization, are derived from the author's understanding of non-Harappan sources. These features cannot be abstracted from the kind of data which are available on the Harappan had the author not begun her investigations of the Mature Harappan artefacts with some pre-conceived notions of what aspects of the early state and, therefore, of the data she want to explore. Hence the sense of objectivity which her contentions provide is not fully reliable. Also, the reasons for the existence of a state in the Mature Harappan period is treated with a definite degree of flippancy which at times proves irksome to read. Ratnagar's remark that 'one cannot believe that states are the kind of phenomena which "evolve" in the same way as did the midwife toad' is an example. Such remarks are also non-explanatory. It is true that the long history of debates regarding the nature of transition between the Early Indus/Harappan and the Mature Harappan, the context of Ratnagar's remark, has been at times acrimonious and fruitless. But even if the transition is seen in terms of 'the emergence of a ruling elite' as Ratnagar suggests, belief or disbelief in the concept of social evolution does not govern the acceptance or rejection of the Early Indus/Harappan past. A reasoned inference for social change would demand interpretations of the earlier periods in terms of their socio-political and economic systems, and not in terms of artefactual continuities or discontinuities between periods/phases. Logically speaking, this has to be the foundation of any research enterprise that seeks to study the nature of the operational processes of state formation in the Harappan milieu. The author fails to represent this aspect of the problem of transition from Early Indus to Mature Harappan in chapter 6. The above criticism is not aimed at detracting from the merits of the book. Ratnagar's approach to the Harappan polity is thought-provoking. She throws open a range of possibilities that can be adopted as interpretative schemes to abstract information from the partial Harappan record. Her questions as to whether the archaeological category of 'Mature Harappan' can have political correlations and her explicit rejection of tying ethnic labels to material assemblage of artefacts are aimed at clarifying the conceptual apparatus of using 'categories' as points of reference within the domains of Harappan archaeology. The text is an exercise in the construction of meaningful facts to assist a problem-oriented research.
Unlike Ratnagar, Chakrabarti and Lahiri fail to rise above the accusation of being mired in 'the thick of narrow empiricism' that 10 years ago Paddayya (1985) aimed at Indian archaeologists. Speaking on behalf of theoretical archaeology at a seminar in Deccan College, Pune, Paddayya had clarified the concept of theory in archaeology by 'treating theory as more or less synonymous with a philosophy of archaeology' (Paddayya 1985: 6) and not limiting it to the application of explanatory models for interpreting material culture. Unfortunately, the significance of the distinction made by Paddayya between a theoretical approach and the application of specific theories to explain specific phenomena was lost on those who commented on his paper, including Chakrabarti. As Lahiri and Chakrabarti's recent publications illustrate, the passage of a decade has done nothing to improve the status of theory within the practice of archaeology in the subcontinent. Theory is seen as an 'imported' commodity by a majority of archaeologists who confine the concept to its application. Lahiri's efforts to undermine the theoretical aspects of archaeology illustrate this feature rather well. By ignoring the first section of the paper where Paddayya defines the aspects of the discipline covered by theory, Lahiri not only quotes him out of context, but also projects her ignorance regarding the nature of the discipline (Paddayya 1985: 6; Lahiri 1992: 10). In effect, archaeology in India has not risen above the fact-gathering observation-generating stage, where a concern with the methodological framework of the discipline is still a novelty.
Publications that equate advances in knowledge with the accumulation of fresh data, and justify the needs for classification, identification and periodization of artefactual assemblages as an end in themselves, are a threat to the growth of 'Indian' archaeology into a mature, cognitive and socially relevant discipline. These publications continue to dominate writings on archaeology in India, and mask the microscopic minority of critical texts that have the potential to make the discipline of archaeology relevant. It is time for us to recognize the politics of writing in indian archaeology, and judge the validity of publishing thoughtless texts.
PADDAYYA, K. 1985. Theoretical archaeology -- a review, in S.B. Deo & K. Paddayya (ed.), Recent advances in Indian archaeology: proceedings of the seminar held in Poona in 1983: 6-22. Pune: Deccan College Post-Graduate and Research Institute.
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|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||Dec 1, 1993|
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