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Book review: Makers of Modern India
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(Amazon: http://www.amazon.in/Makers-Modern-India-Ramachandra-Guha/dp/0143419242
Book discussion with Ramachandra Guha: http://www.ndtv.com/video/player/the-buck-stops-here/the-makers-of-modern-india/172446)

It was during the recent Indian Lok Sabha elections that I began considering reading this book by Ramachandra Guha. This was an election which engaged more people and aroused more intensity than those in the recent past. Many of us felt it to be a high stakes battle. At the same time the polarizing nature of all the main contenders likely forced quite a few among us to do some soul searching in order to figure out where our loyalties lie. Questions like what is core to one’s conception of India, what can be compromised and can’t be, what constitutes development and which issues deserve priority were debated like never before. This election was also notable for the deep involvement shown by the youth. And finally, it even evoked comparisons of the Westminster and Presidential electoral systems.

All of which made me wonder about an earlier period in Indian history when such definitional battles would have been fought, when contending visions would have clashed in an unprecedented manner drawing in the young and old alike with the strong undercurrent that we could be entering a new era of politics - namely when the nation itself was being formed, both in the minds of the masses and as manifested by the emergence of various public figures. Even as the nation was being constituted as a political entity, there was far from universal agreement among people as to what India ought to become, what is its essence and what is peripheral.

These arguments about various aspects of India and their (unresolved) evolution over time is what Guha highlights in the book, using a selection of writings from most of the leading figures from modern Indian history: Gandhi, Nehru, Ambedkar, Tagore, Tilak, Gokhale, Golwalkar, Rammohun Roy, Syed Ahmad Khan, Rajaji, Jinnah. Periyar, Lohia ...and so on.

The transfer of political power from the colonial masters was just one marker of the many sweeping changes going on in the country: the five “simultaneous revolutions” as Guha calls it (national, democratic, social, industrial and urban). The forced encounter with the West set off far reaching changes in this society. It was at such an intersection of these various revolutions and the presence of a gifted set of thinker-politicians that the modern Indian nation state took shape, claims Guha, as opposed to any tradition of political continuity from medieval or earlier eras.

Much of what we take for granted today as the sound, sensible political bedrock of our country was decided upon by these founders, but was considered untested and radical in their own times. A poor, colonized country was adopting multi-party democracy with universal adult suffrage, inspite of being deeply divided along religious, regional and caste lines and having no past experience of being united politically unless under duress. Thus India, in Guha’s words, was the “most reckless political experiment in history”!

So what were these leaders own thoughts regarding these revolutions that they were part of? How did they seek to understand and reason about their own positions and their opponents’ as they went about this unprecedented project? This book is a great glimpse into their minds, unmediated by excessive commentary or theorizing.

For example, nearly 200 years ago, Rammohun Roy wrote about equal rights for women, the freedom of the press, and a great essay on the need for a modern education system incorporating “mathematics, natural philosophy, chemistry, anatomy and other useful sciences, which the nations of Europe have carried to a degree of perfection that has raised them above the inhabitants of other parts of the world.” Close on his heels was Syed Ahmad Khan, who established the Aligarh Muslim University. His outstanding essay called “A Modern Curriculum” outlines his vision of what young Indians ought to be learning, and recommends a modern approach to history and political economy, along with European science. Implicit in their writings is the argument against prevailing social attitudes on these topics.

Gokhale is at his best when exhorting students to serve the country in whatever capacity they can, and not to consider their education to be over just because they have finished college. Being a faculty at Fergusson College teaching English, mathematics and political economy he is apologetic about the fact that while one of the University’s main goals is to produce students capable of doing world class research, the current material condition of the country made that impossible for a while to come. So he encourages them to apply their privileged education to solve any of the pressing problems facing the country.

Bal Gangadhar Tilak is the first social conservative we encounter in this book. His overarching desire to rid India of British rule (“Swaraj is my birthright”) made him differ from Gokhale on many issues though they taught in the same institution and pursued similar activities. His speech “The necessity for a militant nationalism” is brilliantly argued, and befitting of someone who had degrees in mathematics and law. Just by reading it one can imagine what a charismatic figure he would have been.

Gandhi, of course, is given a lot of coverage. And since he invested his entire personality into these various revolutions, we get to read his thoughts on political resistance, ethics, non-violence and untouchability - his “multiple agendas” as Guha calls it. Issues like “temple entry” for Harijans seem quaint to us now, but appear to have been wide problems at that time. His speeches are a strange mix of simplicity, persuasiveness and honesty.

Tagore’s writing is full of lofty ideals, and seems removed from the day-to-day issues that Gandhi is fighting. But his warnings against blind nationalism and thoughtless protests might have been a tempering force. His relatively privileged background enables him to closely experience the more civilized aspects of the West, and bemoans the fact in India we only get to see the most inhuman facets of their civilization.

By far my favourite writer in this collection is B.R. Ambedkar. Though Tagore was the “best travelled Indian of his generation” (US, Europe, Japan, China, Russia) as Guha puts it, it is in Ambedkar that we see clear, modern arguments about concrete issues while drawing upon suitable examples from world history. With a Ph.D in economics from Columbia and another degree from the LSE, he brings to bear on Indian problems his intimate acquaintance with Western ideals both in theory and practice. During a campaign to allow untouchables to drink water from a community lake, he likens their situation to the peasants and common folk before the French Revolution! Because his larger point is that broader political equality is the ultimate goal: “We are not going to the Chavadar Lake merely to drink its water. We are going to the Lake to assert that we too are human beings like others. It must be clear that this meeting has been called to set up the norm of equality.“

His famous essay “The Annihilation of Caste” (sections 4-7) is a must read, and takes an economic and egalitarian angle unlike the somewhat patronising arguments of Gandhi (it’s no wonder they had irreconcilable differences).

Jinnah makes for poignant reading. If you take him at his word, he genuinely believed that Hindus and Muslims are two separate nationalities. And he was too pessimistic to try out the reckless experiment of a democratic India. He explicitly cites the Balkan peninsula as a better possibility. “Democracy of the kind they want to impose on India is an impossibility, for even the conditions which make diluted democracy possible in other countries are absent from India. The sooner the idea is given up the better”. What a humongous tragedy could have been averted if he could have been persuaded otherwise.

E V Ramasamy (Periyar) is represented by his rants against religion. His speeches start off by asking basic questions (like Socrates), but since he restricts himself to folklore and literal interpretations, one is not much the wiser at the end of it. His annoyance with irrational rituals is plainly seen: “If the child trips and falls we have to perform a ritual. To cast the horoscope, to put it in a cradle, to feed it, to tie a nappy, to tonsure, to pierce the ears, to send it to school—rituals have to be performed for each one of these. Even if the child develops a fever a ritual is needed.” His other speech on widow remarriage is personal and deeply moving.

The book has a section called “Debating Democracy” where the decade immediately following independence is represented - the constitution, the role of English language, the monopoly of the Congress and so on.

Ambedkar comes to the fore again. He defends the Constitution against specific criticisms. “I am glad that the Draft Constitution has discarded the village and adopted the individual as its unit” (probably aimed at Gandhian ideologues). On centralization: “Conditions in [the] modem world are such that centralization of powers is inevitable. One has only to consider the growth of the Federal Government in the U.S.A. which, notwithstanding the very limited powers given to it by the Constitution, has out-grown its former self and has overshadowed and eclipsed the State Governments.”

He has too many other good things to say so I urge you to read his “Grammar of anarchy” speech for yourself.

For Nehru, Guha wishes to showcase his post-Independence thoughts, and thus relies on a series of letters he wrote to Chief Ministers while he was the PM. Many of them deal with keeping communal tensions at bay in the aftermath of Partition. Other topics include the Five Year Plans, India’s role in the world, defeat in the Indo-China war. Incidentally, along with Ambedkar, he was instrumental in passing the Hindu Code Bills against much opposition from conservative minded folks. These bills put Indian women on an equal legal footing with men, among other things.

Golwalkar, a pre-eminent leader of the RSS has some strong communal speeches. His understanding of India’s cultural and poltical history is questionable, going by what's presented here.

Ram Manohar Lohia is another fascinating character. He did his Ph.D in economics at Berlin University. And came back to India to lead the Socialist movement within the Congress. He also writes against the caste system, “A true doctrine of equal opportunity would have to undo the work of five thousand years by giving preferential treatment to the lower castes over a period of at least a few decades”. There have been few more contentious statements in Indian history :) He tries to show quantitatively how caste has become encoded as class, drawing upon real examples all over the country. Another essay simply titled “Banish English” cavils at English being the administrative and educational language as so few Indians understand it, “If the child in India is relieved from this burden of learning a foreign language, his knowledge will be widened and deepened, undoubtedly”

Rajagopalachari was another leader with many facets to his life, and exhibited a remarkable ability to break away from groupthink. Though he worked alongside Nehru for a large part of his life, the years after Independence saw him oppose Nehru both on ideological and practical grounds. From his essay called Our Democracy, “Since the Congress Party has swung to the Left, what is wanted for the body politic is not an jjJtra or outer-Left, but a strong and articulate Right.”. His essay “Wanted: Independent Thinking” tears apart the sycophancy in the Congress. He is aggressive about the same themes in the manifesto of his Swatantra Party, which looks like it might have been written last year. He makes his position even clearer in an essay called “The India We Want” which is a very much an economically conservative vision.

The book has a fantastic prologue by Guha, and resources for further readings on specific topics.

As Guha says in this discussion with Barkha Dutt based on the book, the idea of India is a hard sell to today’s youth. In the absence of an overarching mission or crisis, this unlikely coming together of various cultures and disparities is difficult to relate to. Considering that we have few leaders of such stature any more, it needs some effort to appreciate the uniqueness of this project that we are unwittingly (and perhaps even unwillingly) part of. The shadow of history still does hang heavily over this new nation.

The Rediscovery of India by Meghnad Desai - 4
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Chapter 2 - The English Turn (contd.)

Battle of Plassey, 1757 (contd.)

I have now jumped off Desai's book itself and spent time reading his references and other books about 18th Century Bengal (btw this term included Bihar, Orissa). At the end of this post I've listed them all.

The lead up to Plassey begins with Siraj-ud-Daulah's grandfather - Alivardi Khan - who ruled from 1740 to '56. (He chose his grandson to succeed him). Though he was formally a subordinate of the Mughal emperor, he asserted a lot of autonomy. He assumed more control over revenue submitted to Delhi. This was a reflection of the overall decline of Mughal power.

Initially he was tolerant of the flourishing business of the Company. The officials of the Company were indulging in private trade also, taking the help of leading merchants from Bengal, with none of the duties going to Delhi. There were 2 main areas for private trade: One was the intra-Asian trade, from which the Company had formally stepped back in 1680, but was continued vigorously by its employees and Indian collaborators. This consisted of sending goods between Indian ports itself, like from Calcutta to Surat and other places en route; from Calcutta to China (tea?, opium), from Calcutta to ports in the Arabian peninsula. I read somewhere that a lot of silver from Persia ended up as payment in Bengal at this time. And much of this silver had been first looted from Delhi itself by the Persian king Nadir Shah!

Each Company employee was given some personal cargo space on ships that plied from India to Europe. This was the other mechanism by which the private trade was carried out. Indeed the lure of this "pocket" money was a big incentive for many Englishmen to join the Company's postings here. In a famous book called "Robert Clive of India" (which I was lucky to find because Anant suggested we meet Sidharth and Haas at Blossom, to which I'd never been!) by historian/author Nirad Chaudhari, he describes how a lower middle class boy became supremely rich due to his Indian adventures. This book is also good for its description of the politico-economic situation at the time.

Here I must mention a great book, by Nirad C's son/historian K N Chaudhari. His book[4] is the go-to guide for economic/statistical studies of this era. He has applied computer based analysis and Systems thinking to great effect. He is also a rock climber, musician, wine-taster and photographer!

Among the native merchants, the most prominent is Jagat Seth (which was in fact a title given to his family) whose financial activities extended from Surat to Delhi and Bengal. He is often described as the Rothschild of India. I shall paste a big excerpt from [2]:

"The great house of Jagat Seth, bankers to the government, was virtually a partner with the Nawabs in the management of the Bengal revenues. When the Jagat Seths fled from the Marathas in 1742, the chief kadi was sent to persuade them to come back to Murshidabad,'their presence being as necessary to the government as to merchants'. The house received a large part of the revenue, made payments on behalf of the government and financed the operations of the major zamindars. Part of the imperial tribute was remitted by the Jagat Seths drawing bills on their Delhi agents. The Jagat Seths were great political figures. In the view of a French observer, they had helped to bring Alivardi Khan to power, had 'conducted almost all his business' and had been 'the main mover in all the revolutions in Bengal'... For such great services there was a price to be paid. A large commission was presumably deducted from the Bengal revenues. They insisted on control over the Nawab's mint and on a monopoly over the coining of bullion, again for a handsome profit"

Around this time, other major centres where similar economic patterns were playing out were Surat, Bombay and Madras (Need to read up on them).

Towards the end of his tenure, Alivardi Khan was attacked repeatedly by Marathas and some other, minor, kingdoms. Again this shows the weakness of the Mughals. Every source I've read describes the Maratha invasions as horrific, brutal, cruel etc etc. Just the rumour of their coming would cause entire villages to flee. Nirad C's book is very explicit. I shall paste another excerpt from [2]:

" The horrors committed by the 'Bargis', as the Maratha raiders were called, left a deep mark on the traditions of the people of Bengal. They were grimly commemorated in poetry. According to the Maharashtra Purana:
'They shouted over and over again, 'Give us money', and when they got no money they filled peoples' nostrils with water, and some they seized and drowned in tanks, and many died of suffocation. In this way they did all man- ner of foul and evil deeds. When they demanded money and it was not given to hem, they would put the man to death. Those who had money gave it, those who had none were killed.'"

Alivardi Khan ceded Orissa, parts of Bihar and had to pay a tribute to the Marathas. So he turned upon the rich Bengali-English businessmen for money. [2] to the rescue:

"For the time being at least, all restraint in making fiscal demands was abandoned. Zamindars, office holders, bankers, merchants and the European Companies were all harried ruthlessly. The head of the Jagat Seths commented in 1744:' "At present there is no government; they fear neither God nor the King but seem determined to force money from everybody; I have suffered greatly by them". The Raja of Burdwan was said to have been forced to yield Rs. 10,000,000. Europeans reported well-authenticated stories of merchants being kidnapped, tortured and robbed by the Nawab's agents. The English East India Company was told to hand over Rs. 2,500,000, which, the Nawab suggested, it might recover from the rich inhabitants of Calcutta. In the end the English escaped with paying only Rs. 350,000.".

This had turned many of Bengal's elite against Alivardi. Matters were compounded when his grandson Siraj ascended. He has been described as a rash ruler who further alienated them and also insulted the Jagat Seth. Upon accession he extracted huge sums from the French and the Dutch. He bristled at the English fortifications in Calcutta and demolished them. Historians are still debating the rationality of his extreme actions. But in any case, his attacks on the English resulted in retaliation under Robert Clive with help from Mir Jaffar, Jagat Seth etc. And he was overthrown in 1757.

Now, that is my highly simplified summary of the battle of Plassey :)

--
References:
1. The House of Jagat Seth (I couldn't find this anywhere)
2. Bengal: The British Bridgehead, P J Marshall (great book by a top imperial historian, link)
3. Robert Clive of India, by Nirad C Chaudhary (link)
4. The Trading World of Asia and the English East India Company: 1660-1760 By K. N. Chaudhuri (link)
5. Cambridge Economic History of India (link)
6. The new Cambridge History of India (link)
7. Colonial cities: essays on urbanism in a colonial context (link)
8. Smuggling as subversion: colonialism, Indian merchants, and the politics of opium (link)
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The Rediscovery of India by Meghnad Desai - 3
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Chapter 2 - The English Turn (contd.)

In the book Desai briskly covers the battles of Plassey (1757) and Buxar (1764), and the subsequent collection of land revenue in Bengal by the British (which is one long, saad story).

He closes the chapter with a lengthy section on the attempted impeachment of Governor General Warren Hastings. This is clearly a case of historians settling scores with each other, as he says nationalist historians cite the charges against Hastings as an indicator of how bad his regime was when it actually was not. Whatever :)

Battle of Plassey (1757)
Militarily the battle is not so interesting since it was a big betrayal that sealed the loser's fate. Siraj-ud-Daula was the Moghul emperor's Nawab in Bengal. Mir Jaffar, his Chief of Army Staff (high treason, eh?) was looking to depose him. He had the backing of a large number of merchants.

As Desai says, "behind Mir Jaffar was the emerging commercial class - the traders and the bankers who had prospered during the last 150 years off exports matched by imports of silver and gold. Jagat Seth, for instance, had an international banking network which made him a powerful man. The old Nawab had been respectful..the new Nawab was haughty and arrogant".

(That only makes sense as a childrens' bed time story)

He says the defeat at Plassey is regarded by many Indian (esp. Marxist) historians as a major event, an epic confrontation between the forces of feudalism and capitalism where capitalism won. He quotes one of them called Biplab Dasgupta: It was "the improbable takeover of a country as big as India, by a mere trading company". Desai argues that Plassey was none of that. It was a localized affair. In fact the English got inducted into it only because Mir Jaffar used them as a tool to enthrone himself.

Plassey in more detail
Digging deeper, I see that 18th Century India is much more complex, confusing and controversial than I thought. While nationalist historians have stressed the Company's intention to dominate, English historians say that this business enterprise was just unwillingly drawn into local political intrigue.

Dipping into the Oxford History book, there's this essay which offers better insight, "Reassesments of the role of the British in the first half of the 18th century have risen primarily from what is called 'private' trade. The Company's trade might be set into a relatively static pattern, but the trade of the Company was only a small part of British activities in Asia; there was a dynamic private sector as well."

As he explains in that essay (which you ought to read), many employees of the Company, along with their official work, conducted their own "side-business" which was very lucrative personally. Under the Mughal emperor the Company had been granted exemption from all customs duties. Now these individuals used that as a loophole to avoid paying taxes for their extra-curricular activities also. (Elsewhere it has been called insider trading).

Remember that the overall business picture was extremely positive at this time. For my future reference I will note down this important para from earlier in that essay:

"At the beginning of the 18th century about 90% of the Company's cargoes were obtained from India. In Western India the English operated out of the great Mughal port of Surat and from their own settlement granted to the Crown by the Portuguese at Bombay. The cargoes consisted mainly of the cotton textiles of the province of Gujarat. Pepper obtained from settlements on the south-west coast was also shipped from Bombay. Madras, held outright on a grant from a local chief, was the major English settlement on the south-east or Coromandel coast. Coromandel textiles were in high demand in Europe early in he 18th Century.

"In Bengal, Calcutta, a town largely founded by the English, was growing very rapidly indeed. On the strength of grants from the local ruler, the English had built a fort and exercised authority over the town. Bengal was a rich province, producing silk and cotton cloth for export in great quantities. Early in the 18th century it became the major source of British textile exports. From the 1720s shipments through Calcutta usually amounted to at least half of the Indian cargoes (emphasis mine). To purchase their textiles, the Company's agents set up factories in several inland weaving centres, accessible from Calcutta along Bengal's river system."

(Note that above description is w.r.t to the Company's official trade and not private trade)
Since this "private trade" was carried on by individual employees of the Company, they had to rely on capital from native merchants/bankers - who were able to use the Englishmen as fronts/shell companies to gain the tax benefit. This resulted in many strong relationships between the local merchant class and Company employees. The essay admits there is not enough quantitative evidence to estimate its impact, but the phenomenal growth of Calcutta is a pointer. "Calcutta totally eclipsed its rivals in Bengal during the first half of the 18th century. Its growth was meteoric as Indian merchants, artisans and labouring people moved into the area under British jurisdiction in large numbers."

The lines that follow remind me of SEZs:
"The dissemination of wealth among their subjects through dealings with Europeans was of course welcome, but if that wealth lay beyond the reach of the ruler within what amounted to a foreign enclave, if that enclave was growing very rapidly, and if some of the Europeans within that enclave seemed to be extending their range of activities, the challenge to the ruler's authority was unmistakeable. Calcutta in particular constituted such a challenge to the rulers of Bengal."

What was actually being traded in this private trade? How did the frictions play out? I shall have to resume some other time.

(This narrative relies too much on the Moghul tax exemption firman. Need to check if other factors were in play.)
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The Rediscovery of India by Meghnad Desai - 2
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Chapter 2 - The English Turn

A big negative outcome of British control was how India's economy got hitched to Britain - they were the monopoly buyers of many Indian products. He says this was a repeat of what the Portuguese did to spice growers in the Malabar region, but on a larger scale. So I decided to read up on the spice trade.

The Spice Trade
I didn't know that the Spice Trade was such a big thing. Found this must read article which says the spice trade existed even during the ancient Egyptian civilization. It consisted of transporting clove, pepper, nutmeg, mace (read up more on these items) from Indonesia and South West India to Europe, via land and sea routes passing through Arabia.

When this spice route got blocked due to the Ottoman Empire, this spurred Italians (Venice) and Portuguese to find new routes.

[quote]
..as far as spice went, (Vasco) Da Gama and his crew were right on the money. Then, as now, Calicut was a gateway to the world’s greatest pepper-growing region—indeed this was why the Syrians had moved there in the first place. As such it was at the heart of the spice trade, a network of sea routes and entrepôts in the making for millennia: the world economy’s oldest, deepest, most aromatic roots.
[/quote]



In the Middle Ages, spices were of great use to preserve meat, and cover up stale food. They were extremely expensive.

[quote]
a German price table from the 14th century sets the value of a pound of nutmeg at seven fat oxen. At the same time “peppercorn rents” were a serious way of doing business. When the Mary Rose, an English ship that sank in 1545, was raised from the ocean floor in the 1980s, nearly every sailor was found with a bunch of peppercorns on his person—the most portable store of value available.
[/quote]

The Dutch had great success in this spice trade:
[quote]
By 1670 the Dutch East India Company was the richest corporation in the world, paying its shareholders an annual dividend of 40% on their investment despite financing 50,000 employees, 30,000 fighting men and 200 ships, many of them armed. The secret of this success was simple. They had no scruples whatsoever.
[/quote]

(Wow..the article describes how ruthless the Dutch were)

Why England defeated the European rivals
He says one of the main reasons England defeated other European nations, esp. France, is because the King's powers were bound by law. He could not tax arbitrarily and use it to fund wars, which made him use resources more prudently. He also attributes it to luck and having capable commanders like Robert Clive.
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The Rediscovery of India by Meghnad Desai - 1
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For a while now I've been trying to make sense of the British Empire in India - though in piecemeal fashion - as my posts about Bombay show. Looking back, all the history I learned in school seems to be a long series of video games where people with strange names keep fighting and killing each other for no apparent reason. So I'm trying to correct that.

I've missed reading John Keay's much recommended India: A History, but on a recent trip with Vinay to Penguin's new bookshop on MG's, picked up something called The Rediscovery of India by Lord Meghnad Desai - who is a long time econ prof at LSE, but has also edited Cambridge's An Economic History of India (which I wish I had). When at Oxford last year I made sure to buy 2 volumes of their History of the British Empire so I'll cross-refer it where I can. Also I thought of making notes as I go along (which I have never tried before). So here I go, hoping that I actually finish the book...



Chapter 1 - The Vasco Da Gama Moment

Overall state of India at this time

In 1500, the population of (composite) India was just 100 million (1/10th of current)..there was no need to reclaim land or clear forests. There was a luxury market for manufactured items due to royalty and nobility. These products attracted invaders (though elsewhere he mentions that India was actually a poor country going by per capita income and tales of an extremely rich India are myths).

South India was linked to South East Asia, Gulf and Bengal via maritime trade (Did they oppress S.E.Asian countries? Need to check). North India was economically and politically linked to Central Asia and the trade routes leading to China.

Spain and Portugal set out to find sea route to India for spices and textiles. A sea route would mean they could avoid the Central Asian route which was logistically inefficient and involved paying middlemen. First they found South America and over there destroyed urban civilizations, mining horrors etc (read up).

The idea of India as a country did not exist. Trade within India was also not cheap because of bad roads, taxes to be paid to many local chieftains, threat of robbery etc (wonder if it was different elsewhere. Also, I'd guess under such circumstances no entrepreneur would get into long distance trade?).

If you got an exemption from these local taxes, say under the rule of a bigger empire like the Moghuls, your profitability would be much higher. The British East India Company made great efforts to get that privilege. It's a cool story. He cites John Keay's The Honourable Company. Found another very interesting link to the same, which says their efforts began in mid 1600s and finallly succeeded in 1717. Slightly polemical link though.(Need to read up full details of these firman fights - the Company correspondence and also what local merchants must be feeling when a bunch of foreigners were given this privilege.).

Spain and Portual in the South

The Portuguese reached Cochin in 1498 and started buying pepper, cinnamon, indigo. (What were they paying? Silver from the New World?). They soon blocked native merchants from the sea route using their superior naval power and became a monopsony. And soon they stopped trading themselves and collected taxes for other merchants to use the sea route (Meh, government). The navies of Indian kings were too weak to resist this. He cites Om Prakash's book as very good for this era.

Spain & Portugal stopped being a force because their governments became weak in their own country. They focussed only on S.America and Africa. The Dutch got more into Indonesia than India - mainly spices.

Impact of all this trade

Ok, now he mentions that silver from the New World did indeed play a big role in being able to pay for spices and textiles. He cites Keynes (nice!) who called the period 1550-1650 as "the century of inflation". He gives tonnage of silver being shipped. Elsewhere in the book he says people have systematically studied how silver from Americas ended up in India.

All this money (bullion to be precise I guess) coming in stimulated the Indian economy. Textile and spice industries got a boost. By 1700, European producers were agitating for protective tariffs against Indian products and banning Indian textiles but these bans were circumvented in the usual sneaky ways. (Again, he cites and I need to read Om Prakash's book for all this).

So Indian money supply (the silver rupiyah) tripled between 1591 and 1639. By Bernanke! Silver bullion quickly got minted into coins. Gold went into hoard. By Gresham! (not really :P).

Cites an essay by Irfan Habib (who is one of India's foremost historians) regarding the inflation rate of 2% during that time. Found it. The part there about free coinage is cool (Had read elsewhere about the smart monetary aspects of Moghul mints until Aurangzeb messed with them). Page 364 there is pure gold!.

Early 18th Century
During this time England and France were constantly fighting each other (The Hundred Years War it is called. I know nothing of this). Some of this spilled over to their trading outposts in India, and in one of the skirmishes the French under Dupleix defeated the Nawab of Carnatic.

But overall the period of 1500-1750 was largely peaceful trade between India and Europe, and this is often forgotten by us due to the colonization which followed. India (not as a nation but a geographical entity) exported spices, textiles and even food grains (wow!). The collapse of Mughal empire, and the emergence of England over France (not to mention the Dutch) as a dominant force in the European power struggles set the stage for English rule throughout India.
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Dockyard worker, bomber, historian, anti-war activist...
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...Howard Zinn is no more (reports NY Times).

One evening I was doing the usual beat with fellow blokes Vinay and Harsha in Jayangar 4th block when conversation naturally turned to Paul Krugman. I remember saying that that man must have a very different understanding of history in order to write the things that he does, and immediately my friend Harsha (who is well-read on anything and everything) told me he has this book on US history which I should check out.

And A People's History of United States blew me away totally. It was my introduction to a new way of understanding the world, as an interplay of power relationships between government and the ruled, rich and the poor, employers and workers...so on. These axes make history more realistic and fascinating than linear tales of economic growth or institutional actions (which is all we find in textbooks, sadly).

If you've never heard of Zinn, watch this 3 minute teaser of an exciting new documentary based on the kind of radical views that pervade his book.



Luckily his book is now online and free!.

Every Indian should read the chapter titled As Long As Grass Grows Or Water Runs ...Collapse )

Fort, Mumbai - 2
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From David Sassoon library, I started walking northward to my next destination. the Bombay Stock Exchange. I wanted to see this tall building for real and also Dalal Street that keeps getting mentioned in the media. Dalal Street is surprisingly lowbrow and non-descript. If not for the towering BSE building, it's easy to miss. It was around 10:30 on the last day of 2009 and hundreds of people were walking into this office for work. I turned left from Dalal Street to get an other view, and then I understood why TV news blurbs show people standing and staring at this building. There's a big electronic ticker going around that displays stock related information and advertises improvements in the exchange's operations. Below it is a large TV screen that is tuned to popular business channels.



Cotton is what connects Bombay and its stock markets to the Civil War in USA.Once the war startedCollapse )

More on the opium trade
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I'd mentioned the colonial opium trade in passing in my previous post. I couldn't help reading more about it as it was fascinating. It was also a big economic underpinning of the Empire.

I'd heard of the Slave Triangle in the Atlantic, but there was also an Opium Triangle well established in the 18th Century. It consisted of Britain, India and China. The East India Company wanted to source tea and silk from China to sell in Britain, but they didn't have much to sell in return to the Chinese...except opium. So large amounts of opium were grown in India - during the process of colonization - and then smuggled to China, because the Chinese emperor had put a ban on opium imports. The tea and silk thus obtained were exchanged in England for finished cotton products and other manufactures, which were sold back in India.

One thing to remember is that Indians were growing and selling opium to China even before the first Portuguese explorer arrived here, but the scale of this enterprise changed vastly thereafter.

There were two main regions where opium was grown: the plains of Ganga (which was called Benaras opium and traded through Calcutta), and secondly in the Malwa region of Madhya Pradesh (which found its way to Bombay). Many prominent businessmen in these cities owed their fortunes to this trade,

In a book titled Smuggling as Subversion - colonialism, Indian merchants and the politics of opium (1790 - 1843), the author explains the opium politics in fair detail. The East India Company had monopolized the Benaras opium supply chain in eastern India (Bengal and Bihar). They used imperial/government force to impose heavy restrictions on the growth and usage of opium domestically (under some moral guise I'm guessing), so that the Company would be the sole dealer and export enormously to China.

But it started facing heavy competition from Malwa opium which was being smuggled out via Bombay (the "Subversion" part of it). Though the British controlled Bombay itself and would try to examine outgoing goods at the port, they didn't control the interiors of Madhya Pradesh and Gujarat, where the drug was cultivated. To find out how the Company responded to this challenge, you have to read the book :P (it's very well written in fact). Actually there's another essay set of essays by the same author which covers this topic and is available here (PDF), and which quotes Lord Cornwallis as telling William Pitt back in 1780's that there was no point in the British retaining Bombay as it didn't earn them any revenue, and was in fact a sink for the profits gained in Bengal and Bihar. The author goes on to argue that the opium trade changed all that.

As I was writing this, I was wondering if there's any historic novel that covers the same ground, and then I remembered the name Amitav Ghosh, and then his latest book Sea of Poppies, which is set amidst the opium trade. Duh!

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