Begar System in Himachal Pradesh
Begar system was prevalent in the erstwhile Shimla and Punjab Hill States of Himachal Pradesh since time immemorial. Begar means forced labour or employing anyone without remuneration.
Describing begar or forced labour in the hills, Satyanand Stokes wrote, “Begar was the system by which the transportation of each state was carried on”.
Begar system of British India was different from that of Begar system of Punjab Hill States.
In British India, people supplied beast of burden, carts and labourers etc. to the governing powers.
In Shimla and Punjab Hill States, compulsory service of subjects to their chiefs or government was given.
The begar system had also been prevalent in the state of Kangra, Chamba, Mandi and in the Uttranchal hills on the same basis as it was in the Simla Hill States.
Nature and Kind of Begar:
- The obligation of begar system was part and parcel of the revenue system.
- It was obligatory to every household to supply an able-bodied man to labour for the state.
- The begar system was well suited to the contemporary agricultural society where the financial conditions of the people were not sound.
- Samuel Evan Stokes has mentioned, begar was the system was which the transportation of each state was carried on from one village to the next.
- The state materials and the luggage of the officials were carried from one village to another until they reached their destination.
Types of Begar System:
1. Athwara Begar:
In this type of Begar, people rendered personal begar to the ruler.
- Cultivation of the Chief’s land.
- Supplying firewood to durbar.
- Provide grass for cattle and horses.
- Provide leaves for spreading in cattle sheds.
2. Batrawal Begar or Hallah Ka Begar:
- In this system, Begaris carried stone and wood for construction or repairs of State buildings, bridges etc.
- This system was prevalent in Bushahr State, Balsan and Rawingarh.
3. Jaddi-Baddi or Hela-Mela Begar:
- Begaris brought grass, fuel and did other labour on the occasion of marriage or deaths in the ruler’s family and the installation of a new ruler.
4. Touring Begar /Begar of camp arrangement of the chief and his family:
- Begaris were employed for carrying loads and camp arrangement of the chief and his family while touring the state.
5. Begar for Political officials and high officials:
The camp arrangement of political officials and other high officials.
This has two sub-categories:
- It was compulsory for the begaris to provide begar free of cost in connection with dak bungalow.
- Services to be provided to administrative officials touring the Shimla district.
6. Begar for State Guests:
- Begar was provided for carrying luggage and other requirements of state guests.
7. Gaonsar Begar:
Begaris carrying the baggage of tehsil, police and other state officials from village to village on their tours.
Three types of services were provided under this:
- The residents of the village had to arrange for the carriage of the state and government dak to the next village;
- They had to repair village roads when called upon to do so;
- They had to supply unpaid coolies for the purpose of transport of certain state officials.
8. Road Begar:
- Repair of roads and bridle tracks were done by begaris in their respective territories.
- It was not used for the construction of new roads.
- This was undoubtedly an important begar.
9. Shikar Begar (शिकार बेगार):
- Performed during the visits of high officials or friends of the ruler.
- Often, a large number of beaters were engaged at a time for this purpose.
- On occasion, when the viceroy went out for shooting, he used to distribute bakshish to the beaters which was equivalent to a daily wage.
- It was prevalent in Keonthal, Balson, Koti, Sirmaur and the other Shimla Hill States.
10. Mule Begar:
- Some shopkeepers and others kept mules in many states for trade purposes.
- They supplied mules to the state according to the requirement.
- In Keonthal, they had to provide mules for 15 days in a year.
11. Religious Begar:
- The religious begar consisted of labour in connection with the ceremonies and celebrations of festivals of the local deities.
Different Types of Begar in Kangra:
Among the agricultural classes of Kangra, there were gradations of begar well recognized.
- The meanest and most onerous kind of forced labour was to carry loads known as Pund Begar.
- Those agricultural classes that did not wear the juneo (thread of caste), were all liable to this obligation.
- A lighter description of begar was termed Satbahuk, and consisted in carrying messages, letters and any parcel which could be conveyed by the hand.
- The fulfillment of this duty implied no degradation and involved no great sacrifice of personal comfort.
- It was therefore, reserved as the special province of those classes, who although occupied in agriculture, were privileged to wear the juneo.
3. Begaru Begar:
- The third kind of begar was to provide wood and grass for camps, and under native rulers this labour devolved upon Chumars and other outcast people, whose supposed impurity alone saved them from carrying loads.
Begar System in Kullu
In Kullu, the begar system was more or less similar to that prevalent Jaddi Baddi or Hela type of begar.
A. Anderson, Deputy Commissioner, recorded in 1898 that the number of people on begari attending the palace were about 1,211 and the turn of each to attend the palace came once in about 150 weeks.
For the special occasions, such as weddings and funerals 50 begaris were allowed for 10 days at a time.
Gaonsar of begar was practised during tours of state officials. Sometimes, more than twenty begaris were employed.
In Kullu from each house grass rope, charcoal, vegetables etc. according to the occupation of the
the householder was exacted yearly, in addition, each house had to provide a man to work the Raja house for seven days roughly once in every 2 and a half years.
Begar System in Lahaul
In Lahaul, three types of begars were frequent:
1. Begar for travellers and officials: Under it, the begaris were employed for carrying loads of many travellers and officials on tour. It was too heavy because of a few reasons. The demand for the begar occurred within the six months of the summer, the time within which all fieldwork and trading journeys had to be done.
2. Road Begar: Each kothi or group of kothis supplied begaris for repairs of certain length of highway.
3. Mule Begar: This begar involved supplying of horses for the travellers over Bara Lacha and Shinkal by the ten kothis and within the kothis by the different holdings.
Begar System in Suket and Mandi
In Suket and Mandi states, the begar was of the three kinds:
1. Phutkar Begar: It consisted in trifling services rendered to the daubar, such as carriage of dak etc.
2. Phant or Jhamret Begar: It involved the repair of village roads in which begaris were ordinarily employed for 10 days. It included Baddi Jadi begar given on the occasion of marriage or funeral in the ruling family and on the tours of British officials.
3. Pala Begar: The begari had to perform state services for a fixed period, varying in different parts of the state from 2 to 4 months in a year. In lieu of their services, the begaris were paid bare which consisted of 2 seeds kham of rice, 1 pao kham of dal and 4 tolas of Guma salt. This was the most burdensome form of begar. The people whose occupation was agriculture were liable to Pala begar.
Begar System in Chamba
The begar forms in Chamba state were five in a number called panj haqq and were as follows :
1. This begar was similar to the begaris employed for carrying loads and shikar of the chief in Shimla Hill States. If the Raja was on tour in the state, the begaris would have to be in attendance for any work that was necessary, whether ordinary service or shikar. The begaris who carried loads on these occasions were remunerated at the rates fixed for travellers, but other forms of service were unpaid.
2. This begar was more or less same as Gaonsar begar. The only difference being that the begaris were used for carrying the baggage of the Superintendent, Punjab Hill States or some other high British official on duty in the state.
3. It was similar to Jaddi Baddi or Hela begar. The begaris did labour on the occasion of a marriage or death in the royal family.
4. This begar was similar to batrawal. The begaris carried stones and wood for the repair or construction of the palace;
5. This was road begar and involved the repair of roads and bridges within their wizarat. However, all state officials in the parganas, the subordinate staff such as Jhutiyars; the persons holding the post of Akkar; the zamindars and the sasan grants attached to the temples were exempted from this begar.
Besides these, a form of Athwara begar was also prevalent in the Chamba state.
In this way, the system of begar was almost universal in native states of Himachal. Each kind of begar played a separate part in the state economy. But as soon as the cash economy (Apple and Potato) of hill people began to develop, they found this unpaid labour oppressive and all kind of begar began to be commuted into cash.
Read also: Beth System in Himachal Pradesh
Who were exempted from Begar?
- Brahmins, influential Rajputs, state and village officials and respectable men of lower grade were exempted from begar.
- The rich Bania families secured commutation of begar into cash.
- The burden fell mainly on the people of the lower classes such as Bahri, Chamar, Lobar, Koli, Rehr etc.
- Soldiers of the Indian army who were subjects of their states were exempted from begar in 1840.
Social and Economic Implications of Begar System:
Social Implications of begar:
1. The exploitation of farmers and artisans: All classes who cultivated the soil were bound to give up, as a condition of tenure, a portion of labour for the exigencies of state or government. This practice had become so inveterate that even artisans and other classes not connected with the soil were obliged to devote a portion of their time to the public service.
2. The rich and strong escaped, the poor and the weak had to bear a double burden. Brahmans some certain classes of Rajputs, state and village officials and influential, and respectable men of lower grade were exempted from the begar. The rich bania families secured commutation of begar into cash.
3. Rajputs and Brahmins also had to give begar: There seems no such provision in the Shimla Hill States as that prevailed in the Mandi state that those classes who were exempted from begar particularly that of fixed days in the year, had to perform other services instead, such as, the Rajputs were expected to give military service; Brahmans were expected to assist the state festivals, to work in the ruler’s kitchen on special occasions and always pray for the long life and prosperity of their chief, and shopkeepers and traders had to help with the distribution of supplies and preparation of accounts on the occasion of state entertainment.
4. Large joint families: The burden of begar too was heavily imposed by the state which consequently encouraged the continuation of large joint families. The states had always discouraged the partition of families in their own interest. This ensured that a man could be easily available for begar when it was his turn to render service.
The beth system, as compared to begar, was more oppressive as the bethu was confined to serve
only his master and to work at a particular place of the choice of his master who normally forced him to construct a thatched hut in the fields.
5. Rise of polyandry: Brothers were compelled to live together and the independent character of hill woman constrained them to have a wife in common, for the sake of their domestic peace, since the hill woman was not ready to tolerate a rival in her house. Thus, another result of begar system was that it became one of the causes for the rise of polyandry.
It enabled a family of brothers to get the full benefits of several sources of livelihood and protect the wife in a dangerous country when the husband was away. Polyandry was directly encouraged by the state through penalties exacted on partitions.
6. Property: When a set of brothers divided moveable property, one-half of a share of the whole was appropriated by the state, and divisions of immovable property were refused official recognition.
7. Corruption: The begar system was also a source of corruption such as bribe in society. The families having only one male adult, would often bribe the patwari or lambardar to get an exemption from rendering begar.
8. Idleness: Another implication of the begar system was that it fostered the habits of idleness. The object of the begar was to do as little as possible because he had to receive nothing for the work and one could not blame him for his work. Thus, the state got nothing and apart from the economic wastage, the effects were demoralizing for all concerned.
Such bethus were virtually cut off from the rest of the world for all practical purposes because of their nature of work. Their work was confined to a particular place.
Economic Implications of begar:
The whole economic life of the hill states seems to be dependent on this system. It affected adversely the small peasants.
Poor people were more affected: The zamindars were not affected so adversely because they generally sent their bethu and other substitutes instead. It fell heavily on poor people. When it was imperative for them to work in their own fields during the crop season, they had to go for rendering begar.
When the people had no opportunity to earn money from outside labour, the begar system suited well because they had a lot of time to work as a begari. But as soon as the opportunities to earn money from outside labour increased it created for them a great financial loss. With the rise in the
rates for casual labour, a month spent without payment means a considerable loss, which was often more than the amount of the monthly earnings. It interfered seriously with a man taking quasi-permanent labour. Thus, in a household containing two able-bodied men, one would easily go on to
some forest work in Bushahr and Chamba. But as soon as the second brother was called upon to do his period of athwara begar, the first had to come to the home and he could rarely afford to go to the forest work.
Economically, Bethus were very important. They were engaged in the most important economic service by providing all the necessary labour to till the land. The land of the big Zamindars and the basa land was cultivated by them. The Zamindars and the rulers depended upon them for cultivation because there was no other labouring class which could be engaged to do this work.
Debt-ridden bethus for a lifetime: The master whether ruler or Zamindar or Jagirdar used to bear expenses of their domestic ceremonies. He treated the advances made to them as loans and agreement were taken from the debtor by which he bounded himself and his descendants to labour for the creditor until the debt was paid in full. Generally, the debt could never be liquidated. No interest was charged, but neither was any credit given for the work done, this was regarded as compensated by the customary payment. The indebtedness was incurred on account of necessary functions like marriages or disease or for consumption.
Economic Resouces of hill states were stressed due to Artisans Begar: Artisans-goldsmiths, blacksmiths, carpenters and shopkeepers, etc. were all liable to begar if they possessed the land, although usually, they supplied substitutes. The artisans usually made articles for the chief or Darbar during their begar period. It increased the economic resources of the hill states.
Abolition of Begar System in the Shimla Hill States
The British started building cantonments, sanatoria, hill resorts and hill stations. Further, many high British civil and military officials started visiting Shimla and other places in the hills. This needed a huge begar.
In 1827, the Governor-General, Lord Amherst visited Shimla, for carrying the baggage of his entourage from Kalka to Shimla, 17,000 coolies were not enough.
The people of hill states continued to suffer under the begar system. Their wages were extremely low. To add to their woes, many a time, they were forcibly dragged from their homes and fields, and often detailed for several weeks quite away from their places. This really caused them great hardship and misery.
William Edward, who was Superintendent of Shimla Hill States from 1847 to 1852, observed that for the public service, “15,000 to 20,000 man had or more than one occasion to be collected together from great distances.
William Edward, Superintendent, Hill States, viewed begar as nothing short of an insupportable and fearful system of serfdom. He passed an order to promote education in the Shimla hills so that those parents who sent their children to government schools could be exempted from begar. The concession was much appreciated and the attendance in the Shimla school increased.
Edwards got a notice displayed at dak bungalows outside Shimla that the coolies or porters were not to be supplied by the government officers to any private parties, either in Shimla or while travelling throughout the district.
However, Edward’s measures were resented by the British travellers who found it difficult to
procure coolies at the rates fixed by the government.
The demand for porters increased and Edwards scheme was abondened by his successor, Lord William Hay.
Due to the spread of education, the people became aware of their oppression under the begar system. They started to make complaints against this oppression to their respective settlement officers and requested that cash be levied in place of personal begar.
The continued oppression of Athwara-Begar on the part of the’rulers and other officials, led to rebellions in many hill states such as in Kuthar in 1895, Keonthal in 1901, Theog in 1910-28, Khaneti in 1906, Kumarsain in 1920 and Dhami in 1937.
In Keonthal state people of four northern parganas, namely Matiana, Shilli, Rajona and Chandra revolted in 1893, against the oppressive system of athwarau and stopped providing begar.
In 1910, the Kanets and Kolis of the state presented a petition to the settlement officer at Junga against athwara begar, requesting the abolition of athwara at Junga.
The issue was Begar in Kotgarh was taken up by S.E. Stokes, who was a missionary and settled in Kotgarh, formed a sort of vigilance committee and made a representation to Col. Elliot, at the time Superintendent of Hill States in Simla district, and achieved some success.
In June 1921, when the Superintendent of Hill States visited Kotgarh, the villagers refused to render the begar.
Once the anti-begar agitation had shifted to Simla, a series of meetings between the Government, represented by the Deputy Commissioner, and Stokes was held.
In September 1921, the British Government gave in and begar was abolished in Simla district.
In Mandi, the system of pala begar was abolished with effect from January 1, 1917, the only casual form of begar was retained.
In Bhajji, beth had been commuted into cash in 1929.
The begar system was one of the potent causes for the organization of Praja Mandals in the Himachal hill states.
The British Government evolved a model policy on begar and beth by introducing reforms in this system in October 1944 through which unpaid forced labour was finally prohibited in the Simla Hill States.
The begar system had been already abolished in Chamba, Mandi and Kangra in 1884.
Finally, begar paid or unpaid was prohibited within the territory of Himachal Pradesh in May
The popular estimate of the Begar system has been summed up in the following two proverbs:
- “The sky loses its brightness when overcast with clouds, water its purity when covered with slime, a pretty wife her charm at her parent’s home and a man his manliness in tho Raja’s begar service”.
- “Chamar even at a point of death dreams of begar”.