Skip to main content

Landscape, Labor, and Label: The Second World War, Pastoralist Amelioration, and Pastoral Conservation in the Nilgiris, South India (1929–1945)

  • Siddhartha Krishnan (a1)

The upper plateau of the Nilgiris, South India, was a grazed, grassy, and open landscape until the mid-nineteenth century when it was subject to colonial rule and commerce. However, even as it initiated and institutionalized capitalism, colonial rule also sought to selectively and legally safeguard from the material consequences of modernity and capitalism the pastoral lifestyles of the Toda graziers and the open and grassy biophysicality of their principal grazing landscape. Anointed the “Wenlock Downs” and reserved as forest in 1900, conservation policies to preserve this landscape for the amenities it afforded the English gentry significantly influenced policies to ameliorate backwardness associated with the pastoral lifestyles of the Toda. As official policy prior to the Second World War the Toda were encouraged to farm the grasslands to which they were given property rights. After the war, pastoralism gained official preference despite ostensible Toda interest in cultivation. English interests in protecting amenities trumped ameliorative interests. An historical racial standpoint, the pejorative labeling of Toda as indolent, also served strategically during the war as a rhetorical device to make a convincing case for pastoralism as an ameliorative panacea. This article is an historical sociology of bureaucratic discourse on Toda labor and landscape during and immediately preceding the Second World War.

Hide All


2. The Toda case has been constructed from colonial and postcolonial archives and this methodological count nominally qualifies as an historical sociological effort. Historical sociological studies are usually comparative and macroscaled. The only comparative aspect contained in the Toda case is a temporal one between pre-World War Two and wartime bureaucratic discourses on Toda amelioration.

3. The anthropologist Anthony Walker has written at informative length about Toda agriculture and land problems. The historical sources he cites have been both primary—archival— and secondary—Gazetteers. Archival sources that appear in his references are some Board of Revenue proceedings from 1850 to 1927 and a limited number of Development Department Government Orders from 1948 to 1965. His treatment of the archives is straightforward—that is, records as resources rather than as discursive achievements. But for an anthropologist writing in the mid-1980s, the very engagement with primary historical sources is remarkable. His reliance on records as unproblematic resources to agricultural and other external development realities serves his purpose, which is to “rectify the image of the eternal Toda pastoralist.” Walker, Anthony R., The Toda People of South India: Between Tradition and Modernity (Delhi, 2003), 240–97; 311.

4. I subscribe to a “social approach to textual analysis”; see Tonkiss, Fran, “ Discourse Analysis ,” in Researching Society and Culture, ed. Seal, Clive (London, 2012), 405–23.

5. Craig, Calhoun, “The Rise and Domestication of Historical Sociology,” in The Historic Turn in Human Sciences, ed. McDonald, Terrence J. (Ann Arbor, 1996), 313–28.

6. Adams, Julia, Clemens, Elisabeth S., and Orloff, Ann Shola, “Introduction: Social Theory, Modernity, and the Three Waves of Historical Sociology,” in Remaking Modernity: Politics, History and Sociology, ed. Adams, Julia, Clemens, Elisabeth S., and Orloff, Ann Shola (Durham, NC, and London, 2005), 3263 . For utilitarian actors whose interests can be configured from their economic location, “institutionalists have substituted” “boundedly rational” actors. Rational choice “proceeds from rigorously worked out utilitarian assumptions about “individual and group action.” For the cultural turn school, for whom signification as a social constituent that has its own emergent properties, is a core tenet; the formation of cultural categories and practices is rendered problematic and treated as “historically evolving.” The study of one such classificatory category, namely race, in structuring societies and subjectivities, is central to postcolonial scholarship that also complicates the relationship between the colonizer and colonized.

7. Philip, Kavita, Civilising Natures: Race, Resources and Modernity in Colonial South India (New Delhi, 2003), 146–57.

8. Ibid.

9. Sharp, Joanne P., Geographies of Postcolonialism (London, 2009), 6466 .

10. Becker, Howard S., Outsiders: Studies in the Sociology of Deviance (New York, 1963), 9

11. Duncan, J., “Embodying Colonialism? Domination and Resistance in 19th Century Ceylonese Coffee Plantations,” Journal of Historical Geography 28 (2002), 324.

12. Lefebvre, Henri, The Production of Space (UK, 1991), 3849 .

13. McNeill, J. R., “The State of the Field of Environmental History,” Annual Review of Environment and Resources 35 (2010), 347 .

14. Limerick, Patricia, “The Repair of the Earth and the Redemption of the Historical Profession,” in The Future of Environmental History: Needs and Opportunities, ed. Coulter, Kimberly and Mauch, Christof (Munich, 2011), 9.

15. Brown, Kate and Klubock, Thomas, “Environment and Labor: Introduction,” International Labor and Working-Class History 85 (2014): 13 .

16. Walker, Anthony R., The Toda People of South India: Between Tradition and Modernity (Delhi, 2003), 51, 115.

17. Walker, Anthony R., The Toda of South India: A New Look (Delhi, 1986), 6269 .

18. Walker, Anthony R., “Pastoralism,” in Encyclopaedia of the Nilgiri Hills Vol. 2, ed. Hockings, Paul (New Delhi, 2012).

19. Nilgiri-centric environmental historiography makes an argument for how munds categories were legally produced as a spatial category. Toda munds as spaces were “legislated exceptions” to “favoured, though scarcely regulated” capitalist and colonized spaces. Toda munds and grassy surrounds were “conspicuously” demarcated from the colonized tracts of the landscapes as memorials and monuments “to the time before colonization.” Sutton, Deborah, Other Landscapes: Colonialism and the Predicament of Authority in Nineteenth-Century South India (New Delhi, 2011).

20. Cederlof, Gunnel, Landscapes and the Law: Environmental Politics, Regional Histories, and Contests over Nature (Ranikhet, 2008), 247–61.

21. Secretariat Note, Official Memorandum No. 465-A.F/28-1, Revenue May 10, 1928. Tamil Nadu State Archives (hereafter cited as TNA).

22. Walker, Anthony R., The Toda of South India: A New Look (Delhi, 1986), 252.

23. Thomas, S. M. and Palmer, M. W., “The Montane Grasslands of the Western Ghats, India: Community Ecology and Conservation,” Community Ecology 8 (2007), 6773 .

24. Kumar, S., “Forest Fire and Biotic Interferences—A Great Threat to Nilgiri Biosphere,” International Forest Fire News 26 (2000), 3236 , quoted in Puyravaud, Jean Philippe, Mohandass, D., and Davidar, Priya, “Impact of Human-Related Disturbance on Eriochrysis Rangacharii Fischer, a Rare Keystone Endemic Grass (Nilgiris, South India): A Preliminary Assessment,” Tropical Ecology 53 (2012), 26 .

25. Ranganathan, C. R., “Studies in the Ecology of the Shola Grassland Vegetation of the Nilgiri Plateau,” Indian Forester 9 (1938), 534–38.

26. Rule 4 of The Toda Patta Lands on the Nilgiris, The Fort St. George Gazette, April 11, 1893.

27. Revenue Member Tod Hunter reminds the bureaucracy deliberating a grassland grant request by the Gymkhana Golf Club that the Downs were reserved as a forest to secure recreational space. TNA, C. G. Tod Hunter's letter, December 2, 1920, in “Golf Links File” Note for His Excellency the Governor' in Notes to G.O. No.333, Revenue (Special), February 28, 1921.

28. TNA, Secretariat Note, Official Memorandum No. 465-A.F/28-1, Revenue, May 10, 1928.

29. TNA, B. G. Holdsworth, Secretary Board of Revenue, Reference-No. 39 64-B/ 28-3, August 25, 1928.

30. TNA, Secretariat Note, Official Memorandum No. 465-A.F/28-1, Revenue, May 10, 1928.

31. Ibid.

32. Ibid.

33. The Labbais were a money-lending migrant community. TNA, Revenue Secretary's Note, August 4, 1934.

34. TNA, Letter from R.D. Anstead, Director of Agriculture, to Secretary, Development Department, July 7, 1929.

35. TNA, Letter from Collector E.C. Wood to the Secretary Public Works and Labor, September 9, 1933.

36. TNA, Revenue Secretary's Note, August 4, 1934.

37. TNA, Letter from H.R.H Prince Peters of Greece to Lord Erskine, Governor, August 3, 1939.

38. TNA, Letter from P. MacQueen, Collector of Nilgiris to the Secretary, Board of Revenue, September 18, 1939.

39. TNA, Letter from P. MacQueen, Collector of Nilgiris to the Secretary, Board of Revenue, April 17, 1939.

40. TNA, Letter from S. A. Venkataraman, Registrar of Co-operative Societies, to the Secretary, Development Department, January 1, 1940.

41. TNA, Note by the Additional Secretary, Development Department, October 10, 1943.

42. TNA, Letter from Collector of the Nilgiris to the Secretary, Development Department, November 11, 1943.

43. TNA, Memo No. 9708 E/ 43-15, November 22, 1943, Development Department.

44. TNA, Toda petition to His Excellency the Governor, October 15, 1942.

45. Ibid.

46. TNA, Report of the DFO, Ootacamund, December 23, 1942. DFO Davis' opinion influenced government position at this juncture.

47. Ibid.

48. Ibid.

49. Ibid.

50. TNA, Letter from A.D. Crombie, Collector of Nilgiris to the Secretary, Revenue Department, February 2, 1943.

51. TNA, Letter from Dyson, CCF, to the Secretary, Revenue Department, March 13, 1943.

52. Ibid.

53. TNA, Letter from P.W. Davis, DFO, to the CCF, November 7, 1943.

54. Upon Collector MacQueen's 1940 proposal, the government, ruling out the need to legislate the Wenlock Downs as a National Park, deemed it enough that the Downs be “maintained” as one in TNA, G.O. 783, April 4, 1940, Development Department.

55. TNA, Letter from P.W. Davis, DFO, to the CCF, November 7, 1943.

56. TNA, Revenue Department Mis. No. 612, June 21, 1943.

57. TNA, G.O. Ms. 386, April 31, 1944, Development Department.

58. TNA, Letter from T. S. Ramachandran, Collector of Nilgiris, to the Secretary, Board of Revenue, September 9, 1947.

59. I allude to proletarianization as both a concrete and rhetorical circumstance. Concretely, the Toda do work as farm hands for wages, and this can be construed, in terms of social mobility, as a downward movement from a fairly autonomous range-herding pastoral class to an indebted peasantry. And it is this very—perhaps conservative and essential—imagery of the Toda who once grazed freely but now have to toil to live, that serves as rhetoric.

60. Itself “necessarily historical,” “sociology stresses the ‘two-sidedness’ of the social world” or “the fact that social action is both something we choose to do and something we have to do” and “bound up to the further fact that” social reality is “historical reality.” Abrams, Philip, Historical Sociology (Ithaca, New York, 1982), ixxii .

61. This and other similar contemporary details I have generated from my fieldwork with the Toda during the period 2010–2013.

62. Philip also configures rational deportment among the Toda in their interactions with missionaries and ethnographers. Philip, Kavita, Civilising Natures: Race, Resources and Modernity in Colonial South India (New Delhi, 2003), 5657 .

1. My sincere thanks to the anonymous reviewers and Prasannan Parthasarathi for their constructive criticisms. The article is indebted to them. The Ashoka Trust's (ATREE) contingency funds supported my archival research and fieldwork. The Rachel Carson Center Fellowship supported my analysis and writing. I am grateful to these two interdisciplinary institutions. This paper is also the fruit of the labor of the archival staff of the Tamil Nadu State Archives, Chennai. I am forever obliged to the Toda.

Recommend this journal

Email your librarian or administrator to recommend adding this journal to your organisation's collection.

International Labor and Working-Class History
  • ISSN: 0147-5479
  • EISSN: 1471-6445
  • URL: /core/journals/international-labor-and-working-class-history
Please enter your name
Please enter a valid email address
Who would you like to send this to? *


Full text views

Total number of HTML views: 1
Total number of PDF views: 24 *
Loading metrics...

Abstract views

Total abstract views: 253 *
Loading metrics...

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between September 2016 - 17th August 2018. This data will be updated every 24 hours.