The period 1707-1857 was punctuated by dramatic events which had profound consequences for the history of the subcontinent. The ascendancy of the British understood, and scholarship from the 1980s has contributed to a more nuanced understanding of this period of flux. This authoritative textbook identifies and examines the processes of social and political change that took place over a century and a half.
Synthesizing and analyzing decades of research on this period, it covers the following main themes:
The disintegration of the Mughal Empire, the emergence of successor states, and the establishment of the East India Company’s dominance in the subcontinent. It also examines the debate around the so-called eighteenth century transition to capitalism, and the consequences of the colonial intervention.
The processes that aided consolidation of the Rah, its methods of governance and the basis of its economic set up.
Social and intellectual constructs which developed during this period, laying the grounds for colonial dominance as well as resistance to it.
A comprehensive overview of developments in the fields of culture, art, literature, music and ideas during the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.
Resistance to the colonial enterprise, culminating in the rebellion of 1857.
Each chapter is accompanied by maps and an up-to-date bibliography as well as an extensive glossary, making this an essential text book for undergraduate students of Indian history.
About the Author
Lakshmi Subramanian is Professor of History in the Centre for studies in social sciences, Kolkata. She has previously taught at Jamia Millia Islamia (New Delhi), University of Calcutta and Visva-Bharati(Santiniketan).
This book is the product of several decades of teaching undergraduate and post graduate students. This combined with the fact that some of my research interests focused on the eighteenth century made the initial decision to write a text book covering the period 1707-1857 relatively simple. It was not before I actually began to write that I realised how difficult it was to combine fact, analysis and style to produce what I hoped would be an easy read for the undergraduate student. I hope that I have partially succeeded in doing this and also in stoking the interests of the more curious student by balancing interpretation with information.
I have in course of writing this book incurred several debts, above all to my students whose curiosity in some cases and whose apathy in others forced me to grapple with the difficulties of presentation. Living amidst students who prefer to resort to Wikipedia rather than read a text book cover to cover, I tried to make sense of what stood in their way of enjoying the subject, of their lack of enthusiasm about debates in history and indeed about the whole drama of change and continuity, of transformation and resistance. I am not sure I have succeeded but in making the effort, I have immensely enjoyed going back to the old classics as well as to the new ones to produce what I hope is a lucid enough narrative of a period that is as complex in its detail as it is simple in its broad sweep.
Most of my final writing was done while I was wrapping up my establishment in Delhi. I wish to record my appreciation of the staff in the libraries of the Sahitya Akademi and ICHR for making available the books that I needed at this age. I would also like to place on record my appreciation of Professor Sunita Zaidi who kept me company an gave me cups of tea as I typed away and to Dr NirmalKumar whose cheerful company never failed to enthuse me. Finally I would like to acknowledge my appreciation of all my students whose presence in the classroom has never failed to bring in that rush of adrenalin.
Introducing a textbook that spans the period between the passing away of the Mughal Empire and the creation of the Company Raj is deceptively easy and daunting at the same time. Easy because it could appear to endorse a basic thematic unity that attended the making of the Company rule and the implications this had for India as a territorial unit and as a diverse social entity. Difficult because several decades of research has produced conflicting and contradictory impressions on Company rule, the limits of its authority and how that attenuated its so called impact on Indian society and economy.
The period 1707-1857 has commanded a great deal of attention among historians. The period was dramatic to say the least—it was punctuated by grand events like the death of Aurangzeb, the battle of Plassey and the great Revolt of 1857—all of which had profound consequences on the historical development of the subcontinent. In many ways, it opened up a new phase of historical experience that historians, then and later, came to associate with the idea of the 'modern'. Consequently, the period figures very centrally in the debates we have on periodisation of Indian history; from as early as James Mill's History of British India (1818) to Jadunath Sarkar's classic account of the Fall of the Mughal Empire (1932-38), scholars have identified those features of early colonial rule as the markers of a new order, of a new orientation that eventually prepared Indians to embark on an anti-colonial struggle and lay the foundations of a modern nation-state. These features were one, the emergence of a new class of elite collaborators with an abiding commitment to social reform and the rule of law and subsequently to representative institutions and two, the development of a new public sphere that was in turn the direct consequence of colonial initiatives in education,, legislation and social reform. Thus for Sarkar, Plassey marked the beginning, the dawn of a new age, when India moved from the 'decadence of the medieval epoch to the modern era of regenerative social reform'. Here, he may well have been endorsing the sentiments of imperial apologists like Mill who preferred to see the British conquest as the ultimate saviour of India that had suffered the worst consequences of Muslim tyranny even though his sentiments were hardly shared by Muslim contemporaries who mourned the passing of the Mughal empire and referred to the ernerging dislocation as the worst inqilab or revolution they had ever witnessed when the old moral order, with all its constituent elements, had been turned upside down beyond recognition. Nor were these sentiments only expressions of alienation and nostalgia—there was in the articulation of some writings especially by men like Mirza Itisamuddin (who travelled to France and England in 1765 and authored the Shigharjhama-e-bilayat) or Mirza Abu Taleb Londoni (who travelled to England during 1799-1803), the sense that something about the English regime was not merely different but emancipatory; many of them expressed their appreciation of how the English interrogated assumptions about hierarchy and status and assigned an altogether new importance to education. This is not to suggest that Company rule was uniformly received by all sections of the population or that Company rule on its part did not accommodate elements of the existing set up. The complexity of the process of both conquest and its consequences is what forms the subject matter of this textbook. In fact, what it attempts to do is to identify the specificities of the processes of social and political change over a century and a half, and also to try and understand the complex ways in which its history has been written over the last few decades. History and historiography of the transition from Mughal to British rule is at the base of the survey.
There have been in recent years a number of textbooks on the history of India between the eighteenth and the twentieth centuries. Many of these with the possible exception of Shekhar Bandyopadhaya's work have been intended for undergraduate students in Anglo-American universities and have tended therefore, to be condensed surveys with an overarching general formulation that emphasises either the tension between the centre and the periphery expressed as in the case of Burton Stein (A History of India) in the dialectic between state and community or the crystallization of regional identities amidst the central one and the larger Indian politics especially after 1857. This textbook does not insist on being exceptional or different but it does try and look more closely at the period of British rule and prefaces it with a more detailed history of Mughal decline and with the assertion of regionalism as a dominant force in the early eighteenth century, its potentialities and its importance in studying the notions of change and continuity more empirically. In the process, it attempts to grapple with the idea of the early modern as a conceptual category. The Mughal Empire as a centralised entity indisputably went beyond regional conflicts and fostered a certain mode of elite culture and was instrumental in melding a composite ruling class that saw itself as a larger ruling group going beyond narrow ethnic and regional ties. The ruling class was an important agent of centralisation until it developed political ambitions in the course of the eighteenth century, when regional state systems emerged some under their aegis, others outside it, but all of them generating important economic and political changes. The variety of regional polities emerging in the eighteenth century testified to the dynamism of political and economic change in India that spilled over into the half century of Mughal decline and set the stage for a new political orientation and temperament that historians have begun to identify as being early modern. What underpinned most of the new regional states was a close relationship between merchants and rulers—between state and commerce that produced among other things, an extended cash nexus, commercialisation and social mobility and by extension a new sense of power management and governance. The change in the social balance from the dominance of the mounted knight to that of the financier and trader (the bania or baqqal) epitomized the enhanced significance of mercantilism as an idea that began to find increasing favour with sovereigns in eighteenth century India.
The pre-eminence of the merchant in the emerging economy of the eighteenth century has been the basis of much of the historiography of the eighteenth century that goes under the name of being revisionist and one that tends to downplay the so called centralised dimensions of the Mughal set up and to question the rupture that the colonial conquest brought about in the Indian economy. The decay of the Mughal empire and the agrarian system that had supported it, according to historians like Andre Wink and C. A. Bayly, was the result of long-term social processes that ate into the Mughal structure and enabled its power holders to assert their autonomy. These power holders were generally rural and revenue intermediaries and also those commercial groups who had entered revenue farming and began to invest in land. The Mughal State was not always able to control them and bring them under its centralised control, and as Chetan Singh has demonstrated in his work on the Punjab, the state in the peripheral regions contracted very informally with local communities. The growing strength of intermediaries is evident from Muzaffar Alam's work (The Crisis of Empire in Mughal North India: Awadh and the Punjab 1707—1748) which makes an effective case for peasant rebellions led by zamindars in areas of relative prosperity and seriously challenged the view that high revenue always led to exploitation. The gradual maturation of the intermediaries was what formed the basis for the regional state system in the eighteenth century as they had most benefited from the Mughal Empire. The study of intermediary groups ranging from revenue intermediaries and power holders like the Maratha Deshmukhs or the Banaras Rajas to merchants and revenue contractors by historians like C. A. Bayly and Andre Wink have stood in marked contrast to the agrarian orientation of the historians of the Aligarh school and have brought back attention to the non-agrarian sector of the economy. The second aspect of the revisionist historiography has been to look at the advent of the English East India Company rule as part of the same overall process of regional decentralisation and more importantly to re-assess its divisive impact on the Indian economy. For the revisionists, it is not as though colonial rule was without consequence; the question was to figure out when the consequences became perceptible and whether these were irreversible. In other words, much of the debate has been to do with the timing of the colonial impact, not with denying it altogether. For C. A. Bayly, the decline of the eighteenth century was too much of an overstatement, especially in view of the vitality and development of many areas in the country and the mobility and aspirations of new and old social groups. The regrouping of trade routes and economic activity working in tandem with new regional political developments helped intermediary groups to emerge as new movers and shakers and to pave the way for the foundations of Company rule, which thus had distinctly indigenous origins. Implicit in such a contention is also the assumption that Company rule as it began in 1757 was not such a dramatic rupture as had once been projected and that the real definitive break came much later when India was transformed into a typical colonial economy. Such a position is in marked contradistinction to the views held by Irfan Habib who saw the' eighteenth century as a period of chaos and decay when the Mughal Empire lost its vitality and the inherent contradictions of its supporting structure were revealed and aggravated by the Company's politics of self-aggrandisement. While there is no doubt that the establishment of Company rule severely strained the existing political and economic set up, it is also important to take note of the diversity and depth of regional development that occasionally offset the linear history of decline. It is here that revisionist historiography has made singularly significant contributions and has attempted a deeper and more imaginative micro-study approach to locate the specificity of regional historical experience. Just how agrarian colonisation facilitated the rise of certain social groups and how this altered caste boundaries, how complex networks of transformation headed by multiple agents in addition to the state or the colonial power, impacted local society and accelerated certain trajectories of development in the long eighteenth century have formed the subject matter of a lot of revisionist history and have undoubtedly deepened our understanding of historical change in early modern India. The trajectory of the eighteenth century regional states was in part interrupted by the intrusion of the English East India Company but whether this alone was instrumental in thwarting the transition to capitalism in India remains a matter of conjecture. What is less debatable is the fact that early modern India did not have the institutions of civil society and while the advances in banking and trade were impressive, technology remained at a lower level of development. The cheapness of Indian labour was at once a help and a hindrance.
The making of the Company Raj in India is the second broad theme around which the textbook has been organised. The ways in which the Company infiltrated into the state system, expanded its commercial agenda and then became a ruler taking recourse to traditional forms of legitimacy are addressed in some detail. The empire was not won in a fit of absent mindedness—the Company cast itself like a regional power and it was from the 1790s that it became strong enough to think of dominating political events. This produced a new imperial temper coinciding with the arrival of Lord Wellesley and then with the advent of more vigorous social reform. The consequences of Company intervention in social and political affairs were exacerbated by a growing distance between the rulers and their subjects, the full extent of which was revealed in the violence that accompanied the great revolt of 1857. In fact by the end of the period under review, the very nature of the Raj had changed as had the disposition of the Company's men. The age of partnership had run its course, leaving the stage open for a progressive racialisation of British colonialism. As Durba Ghosh remarks in her work on Sex and the Family in Colonial India: The Making of Empire, the expansion of the Company's frontiers corresponded with growing anxieties about social frontiers and the ways in which inter-racial relationships had to be managed.
An important sub-theme in the history of the Company Raj is the ways in which colonial knowledge was produced and how these directly shaped the self-perception of its subjects. This is an area where some of the most exciting research has taken place in the last twenty years. The setting up of institutions such as the colleges of Fort William and Fort George was responsible for allowing a kind of scholarship to emanate from the intellectual projects of the early colonial state, and that went far in informing Indian ideas about their history and tradition. At the same time, the colonial institutions created new figures like the Tamil munshi, the Brahmin pandit collaborator, who successfully bridged two worlds and interacted with the complex world of documentation that the Raj represented. The indigenous collaborators became key figures in the modernising project that the colonial state undertook. Essentially, the project involved the application of Enlightenment ideals, the Rule of Law, of an impartial bureaucracy and empirical knowledge, new taxonomies of standardisation and above all the articulation of a moral responsibility for the benefit of the subjects. Not that the rhetoric was able to remove all the inherent ambiguities of a colonial situation—the gaps in communication, the growing distance between ruler and ruled surfaced whenever a flashpoint was reached, as it did in 1857.
The emergence of indigenous elites was an integral part of the history of colonial cities in the period under review. The rise of Calcutta, Bombay and Madras in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries marked an important -development in the history of urbanisation. These were distinctive formations in that they represented an interesting mix of European and indigenous influences. Even as these cities assumed new urban architectural features, they continued to accommodate more traditional structures both in terms of spatial design as well as in terms of practices. The coexistence of the 'white' and 'black' towns in these cities testified to this tendency. However, in the long run, the cities contributed very decisively to the creation of a new 'publics', a new notion of public space created by institutions like the municipality and the judiciary. We have Kanakalatha Mukund's recent work on South India that looks at early Madras as a site of initial interaction where the Company had to deal with resistance from sections of the city's population and where differences were built into the way the city spaces were organised. She also endorses the view that judicial regulation introduced by the English East India Company resolved disputes and gave local inhabitants an effective channel for developing a new language of entitlements and expectation. The Bombay merchants too made full use of the new municipal facilities and contributed to the development of the city as a multi-ethnic cosmopolitan city, accommodating a diverse merchant population. The business elite in Bombay also invested substantially in urban estate—Amar Farooqi, who emphasizes the colonial orientation of Bombay and sees it as a built – in factor of asymmetrical development, argues that property rights were systematically strengthened. What is important for us to keep in mind is the ways in which these colonial cities vecame gateways for a new social dispensation that Indian elites were quick to identify with and use as a base for their subsequent political transactions.
In contrast to the colonial cities was the countryside, where the peasant faced the pressures of an escalating revenue demand and the exactions of the moneylender. Without exaggerating the vice like grip of the moneylender, Without exaggerating the vice like grip of the moneylender, in cahoots with the newly designated revenue collector, it seems legitimate to argue that the colonial system exposed the underbelly of agrarian Indian to the vicissitudes of the global economy. Even if, as researches associated with colonial power undermined the moral economy of the peasant as he grappled with a world that was not entirely familiar. The survey tracks some of these moments of rebellion to make a case for the politics of the peasants and the subaltern classes as much as it does to analyses the transactions and anxieties of the collaborating elites.
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