“Modernization” and Agrarian Development in India

This is Number 7 in the “JAS Author Interviews” series at #AsiaNow. Click here to see all posts in the series.

The August 2020 issue of the Journal of Asian Studies includes “‘Modernization’ and Agrarian Development in India, 1912–52,” a research article by historian Prakash Kumar (Pennsylvania State University). Drawing from his current book project, in this article Kumar examines India’s agrarian modernization during the twentieth century, giving particular attention to the role American actors played in such efforts. Here, Cheri Kuncheria (Jawaharlal Nehru University) interviews Kumar for #AsiaNow, in a discussion ranging from agriculture under British colonialism to U.S. foreign policy during the Cold War era.

Cheri Kuncheria: What you bring up in your article is a twentieth century version of what David Arnold (2015), for the nineteenth century, termed “contingent colonialism,” wherein British colonialism allowed, and even encouraged, extra-imperial presence in India. How do you situate the colonial-era connections between India and the United States in your broader research, and how did they pave the way for an Americanist inroad after independence?

Prakash Kumar: American missionaries of multiple denominations had a deep, widespread presence in colonial India. Their archives are replete with an institutional memory of Indian rurality over generations that can be contrasted with the patchiness of impressions among chance travelers to India and their perceptions of colonialism, or with the nineteenth century imaginaries of India in American literary works generally.

Scholars of global imperialism have emphasized the lateral connections between British and American imperialisms, which speaks to the plausibility of Anglo-American networks at work in the South Asian colonialism. The American missionaries operated at a sub-imperial level beneath the grid of colonial governance. Their “difference” with colonial measures, if articulated, was clothed in a friendlier tone. The colonialists, on their part, tolerated their presence and occasionally helped them as long as their activities did not create problems with administration. The Allahabad Agricultural Institute, which I refer to in my JAS piece, is a prime example of their liberality in this regard, where an institution primarily supported by American donations was allowed to exist and was even approvingly seen as aiding the colonial effort towards agricultural improvement.

The American presence in India became more robust in the twentieth century and even more explicit after independence as the U.S. State Department and the Government of India formalized alliances to undertake a variety of projects. There is an argument to be made that the earlier missionary presence constitutes the genealogy of American interventions in post-colonial South Asia, aside from the fact that it was relevant in an instrumental way as Cold War-era actors tapped into older missionary accounts of India and indeed some of the significant cold warrior diplomats and technocrats were affiliated with American evangelism. I delved into the theme of Indo-U.S. entanglements in the colonial era with the intent to point out that the much better-known American investment in India’s agrarian modernization after independence had a precedent in the colonial period.

CK: Agriculture and agricultural development in colonial twentieth century India is a bit of a blank spot on the historiographical map. Could you tell us how your work addresses this gap?

PK: You are correct in pointing out that twentieth century agrarian India is a neglected era in the South Asian historiography. The first round of definitive, granular agrarian histories of regions like Bengal, Bihar, the Bombay Presidency, the United Provinces, and the Punjab were focused overwhelmingly on the nineteenth century. The truth is that there is much to examine and analyze for the twentieth century as a whole. A focus on the early decades of the twentieth century allows us to see the early modes of the decolonized perspectives in nationalist demands. Some of the prominent nationalist voices were very open to and invested in the task of village improvement and welcomed colonial state measures or operations such as that at the Allahabad Agricultural Institute. The second temporal thrust of my work on the decades before and after independence sheds light on the transitional period in which efforts by the postcolonial elites on the subcontinent were both a legatee to colonial patterns and marked new directions.

CK: Could you talk about the connections and disjunctions between colonial and postcolonial agrarian developmentalism in India?

PK: In his discussion of agrarian change in colonial South Asia, David Arnold (2005) has drawn parallels between later-day “development” and the prior colonial project of “improvement.” That can be a good starting point for a reflection on the similarities and dissimilarities between colonial and postcolonial variants of developmentalism. Arnold’s effort to find the precursors of development in early colonial economic theory and practice leads him to see development’s lineage in the creation of property regimes through state-directed revenue measures going back to the late eighteenth century as well as in the colonial state’s backing of specific institutions dedicated to agricultural improvement.

The central traits of developmentalism started to emerge in the late nineteenth century with the emergence of the conceptual apparatus of an Indian political economy. The self-definition of an Indian political economy by the nationalists and Indian economists definitely marked a new stage. The nationalist inflections on agricultural and rural growth and livelihoods, and debates over questions of agrarian transformation and rural productivity provided a certain characteristic to such imaginaries. That does not mean that state action and nationalist imaginaries exhausted all possible avenues of developmental desires. Resistance to strictly colonial and nationalist developmentalism could go hand in hand with the desire for positive change and transformation. It is in these spaces that one could go looking for the genealogies of postcolonial political society and of “people’s demands.”

That said, the independence divide is a major point of disjuncture. Political sovereignty and electoral democracy offered several channels for the different strata of society to operationalize differentiated methods of claim-making. While post-colonial development cannot be absolved from the insidious project of state-making, from a demand-side perspective, development aspirations constantly tangled with state-making and law-making. The complicity of development and state-making aside, development imaginaries also rose as a capillary force and engaged processes of resource distribution by the state in a clear struggle for citizenship, and over process of inclusion and exclusion. If one were to extend investigation to literary fields, one would also find evidence of imagination and articulation of development on terms that defied plain and simple narratives of state-building or the normative prescriptions of the state. The bottom line is that the postcolony was not only a site for exclusion but also one of aspiration.

CK: It is pertinent that the first generation of independent India’s scientists and science administrators turned towards American expertise, rather than to the ex-metropole Britain, as they developed the postcolony, especially its agriculture. Can you tell us more about this new moment in the emergence of transnational alliance for expertise?

PK: The Americans emerged from World War II with a sizeable agricultural research and extension network. The new dominant power that the United States was in the postwar global order boasted a surplus in agricultural expertise whose depth and size were unmatched by any other country. It is therefore no coincidence that as the post-World War II global order unfolded, American experts found relevance among a number of decolonizing nations. This process was actively galvanized by the U.S. State Department, as the goal of agricultural modernization among “hungry” nations became a tool of American foreign policy in the Cold War era.

The contest between an American imperial formation and national sovereignty in India is mirrored in the contested legacy of agrarian modernization in my research. There is an opportunity to look at the postcolony as a decolonizing space in which Indians engaged, created, and made sense of patterns of knowledge forms. From the perspective of my research, what is unique about this moment is the identification of the past efforts as a distinct “traditional,” meaning that the modernity proffered by the colonial and nationalist predecessors thus far was in need of a recasting. This signaled a new moment in the development imagination in India.

I can illustrate this with an example, if I may, from another part of my research that details the establishment of India’s “rural universities” in the 1960s and 70s under a partnership with five Land Grant universities in the United States. The first university came up at Pantnagar during the Second Five-Year Plan (1956–1961) and six more at Ludhiana, Udaipur, Jabalpur, Hyderabad, Bangalore, and Bhubaneshwar during the Third Five-Year Plan (1961–66). The active emulation of the Americanist “Land Grant model” played out as India started to roll out these institutions along with the consolidation of an epistemic community that activated a specific vision of India’s agrarian futures. There was a conscious effort to break away from the past patterns. Indian agricultural educationists like K. C. Naik, the founding Vice Chancellor of the university in Bangalore and a representative of that voice, saw the new universities as portraying a new modern. Naik was explicit in emphasizing that India had to break away from the British system of universities and research institutions that it had inherited. The postcolonial nation, Naik and others argued, had to actively and consciously imbibe the American land grant system for agricultural modernization, which Naik called, “a process of liberation” for India.

CK: Could you talk briefly about the sources for your book project?

PK: My archives are an admixture of collections in India and the United States. I have looked at national, regional, and local archives in India. I have also reviewed a number of published reports, agricultural journals, private papers of experts and other political actors, and Hindi tracts. Geographically, these archives in India are largely based in Uttar Pradesh and Delhi.

Over the past decade, I have also looked at scores of university archives in the United States. These store voluminous accounts left by many American faculty—agronomists, social and cultural anthropologists, communitarians, and sociologists—who spent several years sojourning in India. Some of the latter were the so-called early “area studies” experts for South Asia. Somehow their accounts have not found representation among the official files of the Government of India. These records fill up gaps or complement information appearing in the official records in India. Indeed, these are sometimes critical in providing descriptive accounts of events that are amiss due to the scattered state of regional archives in India for the 1960s and 70s.


Arnold, David. “Agriculture and ‘Improvement’ in Early Colonial India: A Pre-History of Development.” Journal of Agrarian Change 5, no. 4 (October 1, 2005): 505–25.

Arnold, David. “Globalization and Contingent Colonialism: Towards a Transnational History of ‘British” India.” Journal of Colonialism and Colonial History 16, no. 2 (2015).

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