Studies of peasant societies have drawn attention to the control of land as a centrally important aspect of peasant subsistence. However, many households of Tharu peasants in Chitwan, Nepal, during the first half of this century, assured themselves of subsistence, even where land was readily available, by eschewing control of land to work as servants for landholding households. In effect, they were landless by choice. Because labor was scarce, they could negotiate favorable terms, and avoid the taxation and exploitation by revenue collectors (jimidars) to which landholding peasants were subject. The jimidar, usually himself a Tharu, was, as agent of the state, not external to Tharu society, but was structurally pivotal, standing at the nexus of its moral, social, and economic dimensions, and linking it to the larger polity. I argue in this paper that to understand the choices that peasants make, we must first delineate the parameters of the larger system of social and economic reproduction of which they are a part.
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