Reporting on Ryots: Newspapers on Peasants and Rural Modernity in Colonial India

Jess Briony Hodgson | 23 November 2023

Asian History | History from Below | Colonial History | Modern History

Image: The Malayalam Daily News (Author's own)

Recent scholarship on India has identified British colonialism as one of the main factors that caused ‘the Great Divergence’ between India and Europe.[1] Those writing from the nationalist viewpoint have solidified this perception, with Shashi Tharoor arguing that India's contribution to the world's GDP was reduced from 23-27 per cent in the 18th century to just about 3 per cent by the time it achieved independence.[2] This may be accurate, but such accounts ignore the nuances of the process of change, and how they impacted people at an everyday level.

My first foray into the archives - funded by Sheffield's SURE scheme – demonstrated to me how these large-scale economic changes, such as the process of development of "modernity", were extremely complex. They cannot and should not be limited to urban-centric development narratives, nor to nationalist rhetoric, nor to ‘diffusionist theories’ that see modernity as a Western export.[3]

My project on colonial "modernisation" focused on rural India because modernity is seen as a completely urban phenomenon, especially in colonial contexts. My interest in rural India also allowed me to decode imperial narratives regarding Indian villages, and in particular about peasant communities, which were often presented as irrational and intransigent. As I explored the British Library's Asia and Africa Collections, as well as online archives, it soon became clear that peasants had a far more complex relationship with modernity than simply accepting or rejecting it, and that to assume otherwise would be to minimise their agency and inventiveness. This is a dangerous trap to fall into, particularly for historians who base their accounts on colonial narratives.

In many newspapers, there was also a sense that "modernity" was not geared towards benefitting peasants or rural communities as much as it was for developments that would benefit colonial exploits and international trade. In particular, it was alleged that those innovations that benefitted Britain’s international trade were being favoured, often at the cost of Indian ryots. For example, a 1905 issue of the Swadesamitran stated plainly that 'there is no doubt that agriculture has not improved. That the trade has advanced may be true in the case of the foreign trade…[but] the internal trade of India has perished’.[4] To colonial officials this might have seemed like an example of Indians’ 'anti-commercial spirit', but the picture that we get through a nuanced reading of the archive is much more variegated.[5]

Reading colonial records against the grain, my finding was that rural folk interacted with modernity based on their own judgement and needs, and often rejected what they found either inaccessible or ineffective. We see this most clearly in primary sources that do not speak from the state’s perspective, for example newspapers published in indigenous languages (which were translated into English by the state to monitor seditious views/activities). Whilst newspaper columns, even in vernacular languages, may have been written by more educated sections of society, many purported to take ryots' experiences into account, using first-hand experiences and correspondents’ reports for example. These reports made it clear that, despite the power imbalance due to colonialism and the wealth divide, India's villagers were not loath to experiment with new technologies in the colonial era of "modernity". In fact, different technologies were tested extensively by peasants.

Conclusive evidence for this argument is provided by the fact that when the colonial government did set up agricultural colleges - with the intention of experimenting and educating locals in agricultural science, and benefitting local agriculture as part of their focus on “constructive imperialism” or “moral and material progress” (common phrases at the time) - some students took newly-developed plant strands for use in their own farms.

However, they did not accept everything uncritically, rejecting certain innovations such as the steam-thrashing machine, since the straw generated by it was not suitable for cows.[6] With the additional context of local perspectives, we can see how Indian villagers judged the machinery using a more well-rounded idea of efficiency - taking into account its place in the whole process - than colonial sources gave them credit for.

These complex issues are not limited to history books - in post-colonial India there is still a fixation on urban areas, which are seen, almost exclusively, as habitations of modernity. This is strengthened by a bias in favour of the middle class in the media, which leads to a consolidation of ideas of supposed rural inferiority. Such skewed perceptions must be challenged before substantial structural change can be made. We have to acknowledge the nuanced nature of rural experiences and work past inherited colonial assumptions. This goes for the history of agrarian group in many countries, even as the world moves towards a city-centric model of growth.

 Jess Briony Hodgson is a third year BA History student, currently focusing on 19th century radicalism. This research was conducted under the University of Sheffield's S.U.R.E. scheme, and looked at rural experiences of colonisation and modernity in India via primary source material such as photographs, almanacs, and official reports. The project and this article were supervised and supported by Dr Saurabh Mishra. If you are interested in seeing more of this project, feel free to email .

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The title is partially a reference to 'Reports on Ryots in India' if you feel this is relevant to note - REPORTS ON RYOTS IN INDIA. (1879). London Quarterly Review, Oct.1862-Jan.1932, 51(102), 504-508. Retrieved from

[1]  Prasannan Parthasarthi. ‘The Great Divergence’, Past and Present , 176.1 (August 2002), pp. 275–293.

[2]  Shashi Tharoor, Inglorious Empire: What the British did to India  (Penguin, London, 2017), pp. 2-3.

[3]  As seen with Niall Ferguson, Civilization: The West and the Rest  (Penguin, London, 2011).

[4]  'The Swadesamitran,' Report on Native Papers in the Madras Presidency , July 1905.

[5]  William Chichele Plowden, Sir, and India. Census Commissioner. “Report on the Census of British India, Taken on the 17th February 1881 ...” Census Reports - 1881, vol. 1, London, Printed by Eyre and Spottiswoode for H.M. Stationery Off., 1883., 1881. JSTOR, .

[6]  'Report of the College of Science, Poona for 1884-1885 with copies of the Annual Report on the College Farm and Agricultural Classes attached to High Schools', Asian and African Collections , The British Library [accessed 07/2023]

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