Hill States under the Colonial power: Political and Administrative History. Grants, Sanads and territorial aggression.

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British Rule in the Hill State

The British rule commenced in the state after Anglo-Gorkha war. The Gorkha’s were out powered by the British and they established their supremacy in the state after the Anglo-Gorkha war along the provinces of Satluj. Thus British started annexing the area one by one and emerged as dominant powers in the hill state. The early 19th century witnessed the annexing of Shimla by British. However, Himachal Pradesh became a centrally administered territory after India’s Independence in the year 1948 by integration of 31 hill provinces.

The first war of Indian Independence popularly called as the revolt of 1857 was the result of political unrest and grievance against British rule which involved social, religious and economical reasons. However, the freedom movement was not very active in hilly region unlike other parts of the country. They displayed their inactiveness when the first war of independence broke out, similar was the attitude of their rulers. However, Bushahr was the only ruler who was an exception and was hostile to British administration. It is believed that some people even offered helping hand for the British during the revolt period. Some of the rulers who helped the British included rulers from Bilaspur, Chamba, Dhami and Bhagal.

The hilly region of Himachal was annexed to British territory after a declaration was made by the queen in year 1858. However, the British rule did not hamper the progress of the state, some of the districts like Mandi, Bilaspur and Chamba made excellent progress during British rule. The British rule got excellent support from the Hill districts during the First World War. The people of the state remained loyal and extended all possible help to British administration both in the form of men and goods. Some of the places like Bilaspur, Chamba, Nurpur, Mandi, Kangra, Siba and Suket were of great aid to the British rule.


Begar was the labour which all subjects had to provide the state for fixed periods during the year. It was unfree because there was no choice about wanting to give labour or not. Since agriculture was backward and most areas were not monetised, only a small part of the surplus could be appropriated through cash or kind. It was for this reason that direct labour services were the predominant form of surplus appropriation by the Hill States. There were basically two types of begar taken by the State; one, the regular labour extracted throughout the year and two, the contributions in labour and kind made during special occasions like birth, death and marriage in the Chief’s family. These types of labour had to be provided by all peasant proprietors and other agriculturalists, exceptions being made for members of the royal family, certain Bramhin and Rajput families and most of the villagedevtas and divinities. This labour service was taken by the State through its officers and the members of the royal family.


Labour which had to be performed regularly was called Athwara Begar and included


  1. i) Porterage, including the carrying of revenue in kind to the chief’s household.


  1. ii) Manning the Chaukis(watchposts) along the village roads and providing village watchmen.


iii) `Postal’ service within the state and carrying official communication to other states and the British town of Simla.


  1. iv) Road construction and maintenance.


  1. v) Providing labour, food and personal attendance to British officials on Shikar. This also included participating in the `chase’ and drum beating.


  1. vi) Service in the royal household and kitchen, including provisioning grass, fuel wood, etc.


vii) Service to the village deity which included almost everything that was provided to the royal family.


The other form of begar was called Hela begar, and was part labour and part cash/kind contribution. This was a levy uniformly applied to state subjects and at times included those Bramhins and Rajputs normally exempted from begar.


Begar was recognised by the British authorities right from 1815, and all the Sanadsgranted to these Hill States recorded in detail the types, quantities and other requirements of the labour to be provided by the hill people to the British authority. British records of this period have no mention of the term Beth, or other forms of unfree labour, in the Western Himalayas.


Beth was a system of forced labour where the lowest castes like the Kolis, Doms, Chamars, etc., provided agricultural labour and other menial and `polluting’ services to the chiefs, the leading families and the village divinity. They also provided agricultural labour to the Kanet peasant proprietors ( “cultivating, inferior Rajputs” ), though only seasonally. Customarily debarred from land titles, they were dependent on their patron castes (clans?) and families for survival. They were not from the same ethnic stock and had different mythic-historic origins than the dominant groups in the villages. Their inferior position was reinforced through the various rituals and ceremonies that embodied the power structure of the village. Situated outside the Bhaichara of the Bramhins, Rajputs and Kanets, the Bethus(those who give Beth) were outside the decision making bodies of the villagers.


Reference to beth is rare in British records and it was more often than not collapsed as a form of begar, or as another form of tenancy. There is not much reference to the social class, political and economic status and/or function in the village society of the bethus. This, it seems, was primarily because beth and British interest hardly ever came into contact with each other. It was only in the last decades of the 19th century that the British first came to know about beth but were able to distinguish it from begar, in their policies, only in the last few years of their rule.


Literally speaking, ‘reet’ means ‘a custom. To some, it was a form of marriage, but to others it was the payment usually made on the occasion (of marriage). Macnab writes in 1888-89 that reet was a temporary marriage without any formal ceremony, and was dissolved by the woman taking a new husband, who paid the first husband the money originally paid to the girls parents, ordinarily Rs 70. Thakur Surat Singh (1924) defined reet as a form of marriage without ceremony, contracted by paying a price, which varied according to beauty, generally from Rs 100 to Rs 2,000, with a woman already legally married. There was no limit to such marriages, and could be as easily dissolved as they were freely undertaken.  A letter written to the Superintendent hill states, Shimla, in 1925 noted that reet invariably takes place when a woman had actually run away from the husband’s home. The man with whom the woman went to live paid for her to the husband and if he was not alive, to the heirs. Colonel Wace (1925), however, was of the opinion that reet was not a form of marriage at all, but merely the payment usually made on marriage. The marriage tie being loose at best, if the woman goes off with another man, the new husband was required to reimburse (the amount to) the former husband. Both these accounts of native elites (given by the Secretary of HVPS and chiefs of the native states) and the colonial understanding of reet do not give a sufficiently clear picture of this custom.  Even Dunnet (1926) did not find it easy to explain exactly what reet is. The word itself means a custom.

Reet was practised with a dissimilar logic in different hill regions. Nevertheless, it had an important element of marriage, whatever the way in which it was practiced marriage, remarriage or divorce and defined the nature of conjugal relations. These conjugal relations were fundamentally different from the Brahmanic principles of ritual purity and chastity. In Kullu, cohabitation was considered equal to marriage, and the son of a woman who had been received into a house and treated as a wife succeeded equally with the legitimate children.56 Marriages in Sirmur differed fundamentally from the Brahmanic theory of marriage as a sacrament. It regarded marriage as a civil contract terminated by the mutual consent of both the parties, and ‘the Hindu idea that the wife is one-half of her husband’s body was hardly existent. It was precisely due to these reasons that Surat Singh viewed these customs critically and regarded the women of Shimla hills as lewd and prone to temptation.

Reet also had an important element of divorce, which apparently ‘shook the Hindu sentiment. If a woman in Sirmur disliked her husband, she returned home, arranged a marriage with someone else, paid reet to her first husband, and went to live with the new one. Her first husband could not refuse to accept the reet, though he may haggle over the amount. Women could thus change their husbands when and as often as they choose and this liberty was not considered as evil. The existence of such notions of sexuality led to the emergence of many debates relating to their legality. Although reet had customary validity in most of the native hill states, in many cases it was questioned in a court of law on the pretext of morality. It was also argued that ‘there is no provision in the Hindu scriptures enjoining so much liberty to a woman.

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