Begar System in Himachal Pradesh: A Tale of Struggle and Reform


The begar system in Himachal Pradesh, specifically in the former Shimla and Punjab Hill States, is a topic that's both fascinating and important to learn about. This system, which goes way back in time, is all about forced labor or making people work without paying them. The socio-economic landscape of the region was fundamentally influenced by the begar system, a traditional system with deep roots in antiquity.

A Complex Historical Legacy

During the British rule in India, the system of providing animals, carts and laborers to the government existed not only in British India but also in princely states like Shimla and Punjab Hill States. However, there was a significant difference in the way this system worked in these hilly regions compared to the rest of India.

In British India, people had to pay taxes in the form of things they owned or could do, such as providing animals and workers to carry heavy loads and carts to the government. But in Shimla and Punjab Hill States, the system was even more extreme. People had to do various types of work for their local chiefs or the government.

Road Begar: Compulsory Porterage

One task that was commonly required was called "road begar." This task involved carrying heavy loads on their backs along difficult mountain roads without any pay. Local inhabitants were often coerced into providing their labor and physical strength to transport essential supplies, construction materials, and other goods on the treacherous mountain roads. This form of begar placed a considerable burden on the local populace, who were compelled to contribute their labor without compensation.

Beyond road begar, landowners and householders were subjected to various other forms of compulsory service to their chiefs and Jagirdars. This included agricultural and domestic labor, which effectively bound the subjects to provide their services to the local ruling elite. These obligations were often onerous, with individuals having to work on the lands of their chiefs or assist in their households, thereby diverting their labor away from their own sustenance and economic activities.

Nature of Begar:

"Before the arrival of British rule in the hill states, the transportation of the chief's goods from one village to another was accomplished by the subjects, following a system known as 'begar.' Initially, this practice was a personal obligation, but it later became intrinsically tied to land ownership. Begar formed an integral part of the revenue system and symbolized the ruler's entitlement to personal service.

Every household was required to provide an able-bodied man for labour on behalf of the state. The begar system proved particularly well-suited to the prevailing agricultural society, where the financial stability of the populace was lacking, and opportunities to earn cash wages through external labour were limited.

The economic challenges faced by the people made it difficult for rulers to collect revenue and other dues in cash. Consequently, rulers resorted to levying nominal cash revenue and obtaining the remainder in the form of labour from their subjects.

Human labour emerged as the primary means to sustain the administration, as it was often the sole viable option. Among the miscellaneous dues paid by the agricultural population, begar or forced labour held the greatest significance.Without it, the performance of customary ceremonies, such as marriages and funerals, within the hill states would be impossible."

While defining the nature of begar, S.E.Stokes has mentioned, "begar was the system by which the transportation of each state was carried on. It was not from stage to stage as at present, but from one village to the next." The officials' belongings and state materials were transported from one village to another until they arrived at their destination. This system didn't pose much hardship as there wasn't much to carry and only the state's and its officials' obligation was carried out, without any payment involved.

Begar in the Shimla Hill States:

The British government, upon establishing supremacy over the hill rulers, acknowledged and institutionalized the begar system. As part of the process of reinstating the hill chiefs in their territories, they were required to provide a certain number of begaris in proportion to the revenue generated from their domains. Additionally, both the East India Company's army and individual officials took advantage of the begar system, employing such labor when traversing the hilly terrain.

The Growth of Begar:

Under British rule, the burden of the begar system increased significantly in the Shimla Hill States, primarily during two key developments: the construction of the Shimla-Tibet road and the transformation of Shimla into a bustling hill station.

The Shimla-Tibet road construction, a vital infrastructure project, required a substantial workforce. This demand led to an escalation in the use of begar labor. Villagers were often tasked with carrying state materials and the luggage of officials from one village to the next until they reached their destination. Notably, while the labor was unpaid, it did not impose excessive hardship due to the relatively manageable loads involved.

Types of Begar System

Type of Begar SystemDescriptionExamples of Begar Services
1. Athwara BegarPersonal servitude rendered to the ruler- Cultivation of the Chief's land - Supplying firewood to durbar - Providing grass for cattle and horses - Providing leaves for cattle sheds
2. Batrawal Begar of Hallah ka BegarCarrying stone and wood for construction and repairs of State buildings and bridgesPrevalent in Bushahr State, Balsan, and Rewingarh
3. Jaddi-Baddi or Hela-Mela BegarLabor provided on occasions like marriages, deaths in the ruler's family, and new ruler installationsOccasion-specific services
4. Touring Begar/ Begar of camp arrangement of the chief and his familyCarrying loads and arranging camp during the chief's tours- Supporting the chief's family during travels
5. Begar for Political officials and high officialsCamp arrangement and services for political and administrative officials, including dak bungalow support- Providing begar for dak bungalows - Assisting officials touring Shimla district
6. Begar for State GuestsCarrying luggage and catering to the needs of state guestsServices for state guests
7. Gaonsar BegarCarrying baggage of tehsil, police, and state officials between villages- Transporting state and government dak - Repairing village roads - Supplying unpaid coolies for state officials
8. Road BegarRepairing roads and bridle tracks within their territoriesRoad repair services
9. Shikar BegarProviding beaters for high officials or friends of the ruler during hunting trips- Engaging beaters for hunting - Distributing bakshish to beaters
10. Mule BegarSupplying mules to the state according to requirementsMule provision for trade purposes
11. Religious BegarPerforming labor for local deity ceremonies and festival celebrationsServices related to local deity ceremonies and festivals

Exemptions from Begar:

  1. Brahmins, Influential Rajputs, Officials, and Respectable Men: The Begar system exempted certain privileged classes such as Brahmins, influential Rajputs, state and village officials, and respectable men of lower grade. This exemption shielded them from the burden of forced labor.
  2. Rich Bania Families: Wealthy Bania families often secured commutation of Begar into cash, sparing themselves from the physical toil associated with this system.
  3. Soldiers of the Indian Army: In 1840, soldiers of the Indian Army who were subjects of their respective states were granted exemption from Begar, recognizing their commitment to military service.

Social and Economic Implications of the Begar System

The Begar system, a historical practice of forced labor, had significant social and economic implications in the regions where it prevailed. This system, often imposed by ruling authorities, had far-reaching effects on various aspects of society.

Social Implications of Begar:

  • Exploitation of Farmers and Artisans: The Begar system exploited all classes involved in agriculture, making them provide labor for the state or government. Even artisans and those not directly linked to agriculture were obligated to dedicate a portion of their time to public service.
  • Rich vs. Poor: The system disproportionately burdened the poor, as the wealthy and influential managed to evade Begar. This led to a situation where the rich escaped the obligation while the poor bore a double burden.
  • Polyandry and Large Joint Families: Begar contributed to the rise of polyandry, as brothers were compelled to live together. This arose from the necessity to maintain domestic harmony when the hill woman was unwilling to accept a rival in her household.
  • Corruption: The Begar system fostered corruption in society, as families with only one male adult would often bribe officials to obtain exemptions from forced labor.
  • Idleness: The nature of Begar encouraged idleness among those forced to labor, as there was no incentive to work diligently when there was no compensation.
  • Isolation: Begar laborers were virtually cut off from the outside world, as their work was confined to specific locations, isolating them from society.

Economic Implications of Begar:

  • Dependence on Begar: The economic life of hill states was significantly dependent on the Begar system. This reliance adversely affected small peasants.
  • Impact on the Poor: The Begar system hit the poor hardest. While zamindars could often send substitutes, the poor had no choice but to engage in forced labor.
  • Financial Loss: As opportunities for earning money from outside labor increased, spending a month without payment during Begar had significant financial consequences, often exceeding the monthly earnings.
  • Hindrance to Permanent Labor: Begar interfered with individuals seeking quasi-permanent employment. It created obstacles for individuals in households with multiple able-bodied members to engage in work outside their mandatory Begar service.
  • Crucial Role of Bethus: Economically, Bethus played a pivotal role by providing labor for cultivating the land of big Zamindars and Basa land, making them indispensable for agricultural activities.

The Abolition of Begar: Samuel Evan Stokes and the Fight for Reform

Samuel Evan Stokes, an American missionary, arrived in the Shimla hills in 1904 and became a staunch critic of the Begar system, a deeply entrenched practice in India that subjected individuals to harsh working conditions. Stokes and his associates initiated the abolition of Begar, which ushered in a new era of social justice and economic change.

The Choice of Kotgarh:

Stokes believed that Kotgarh, a region nestled in the Shimla hills, was the ideal place to launch an agitation against the oppressive Begar system. Several factors made Kotgarh particularly suitable for this purpose:

  • Strategic Location: Kotgarh served as a critical stage on the Hindustan-Tibet road, connecting Shimla and Rampur. Its strategic significance and its direct governance by the British government made it a focal point for potential reform.
  • Surrounded by Hill States: Kotgarh was surrounded by numerous hill states, allowing for the dissemination of ideas and the potential for collaboration among various communities.
  • Education and Public Spirit: The people of Kotgarh were relatively more educated, and some were individuals of considerable public spirit. They were eager to effect positive change in their region.

The Formation of a Vigilance Committee:

With Samuel Evan Stokes at the forefront, the concerned citizens of Kotgarh established an informal vigilance committee. This committee served as a platform for collective action and advocacy against the Begar system. The vigilance committee wasted no time in addressing the issue. They sent a formal representation to A.C. E. Elliot, the Superintendent of Hill States, advocating for the doubling of wages for the begar coolies. Elliot, sympathetic to their cause, supported their suggestion.

Samuel Evan Stokes and the vigilance committee achieved significant progress in just two years by doubling the wages of the begar coolies, providing much-needed relief.

Abolition in Mandi:

Meanwhile, in Mandi, another significant development occurred in the fight against Begar. The system of pala begar was abolished effective from January 1, 1917, though some casual forms of begar were retained. Compensation was provided to private individuals entitled to the services of begaris, and the supply of firewood was taken over by the Forest Department. To address the loss of begaris whose work had been of a permanent nature, the number of subordinate state servants was increased, and arrangements were made to obtain casual labor.

Samuel Evan Stokes and the citizens of Kotgarh, along with progress in Mandi, played a key role in abolishing the Begar system. Their dedication to social justice and labor reform laid the foundation for a fairer society. Challenges persisted, but their collective actions demonstrated the power of pursuing justice.

In summary, the study of the begar system in Himachal Pradesh offers significant insights into the historical, social, and economic dimensions of the region. This system's deep historical roots and distinctiveness in the hill states, marked by compulsory labor and services, have profoundly influenced local societies. In conclusion, the examination of the begar system in Himachal Pradesh serves as a valuable case study, highlighting the enduring struggle for justice and equality in the region's history and contributing to our broader understanding of labor history in India.

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