In the process of tracing the evolution of capitalism, I have bumped into the debate regarding the origins of capitalism. I have researched on hundis and commercial classes in colonial India and avoided using the word “capitalism” in the writing process. In that particular class, it was the elephant in the room. At the program, students and professors discussed labor relations and capitalism in India of the twentieth century, but the exact terms of how it was introduced is rather unclear to me. While conversing with Tathagata, he has expressed the idea that capital existed in South Asia but not Capitalism prior to the arrival of British colonialism. Likewise, people and land were not viewed as property before colonialism. I had received a similar narrative in history classes in Jawaharlal Nehru University, but again the spotlight was targeted at British policy.
C. A. Bayly provides useful insights to this debate from the perspective of social change among indigenous groups. He shows the effects of commercialization on preexisting social relations. There is continuity in terms of social formations, but we also see the significant rise of intermediate groups that perform their roles largely on a mercenary basis. According to my understanding, capitalism, similar to colonialism, could only have been introduced smoothly given the ascendance of these groups. Bayly hints at this as well in Indian Society and the Making of the British Empire and cautions against generalizing them as a “class” since he is still describing in a pre-capitalist society. (p11) Still, Bayly argues that there are conflicts on interest based on social groupings and that three major forces determined the fate of post-Mughal society: the capitalists, the administrative literati, and landlords. (p12) He uses “class formation” to generalize this period as an inadequate shorthand.
Both Bayly and Alam’s works address the question of religion in Mughal rule. It is well known that there had been erroneous ideas regarding Mughal decline, as if someone made a mistake somewhere along history. Actually, both authors have shown that the system had been thriving on the constantly shifting allegiance of diverse social groups such as Afghans, Hindu ascetics, and others. Some particular groups had clearer political connections with the Mughals, such as the madad-i ma’ash, who were often learned theologians, and received land grants in return for loyalty. Alam shows that the zamindars and peasants directed their rage against the Mughal state towards the madad-i ma‘ash at times. But from the birds-eye view of historical processes, various social groups played a significant role in supporting the Mughal structure. Mughals allowed for tribal or community military expansion into unoccupied land as long as they paid tribute to the court and recognized the Mughal ruler as the king of kings (shah-an-shah). These groups understood that they could function autonomously to some extent, but at the same time looked up to Mughal rule for symbols of royalty and sovereignty. This system continued to function but could not adapt to changes in social relations. While ambitious Muslim office-holders of Awadh, Bengal, and Hyderabad gradually terminated their revenue payments to the Mughal center as they gained more autonomy in matters of governance, they still respected the Mughal authority in a way that a simple “dynastic takeover” paradigm would not be able to gauge. “Richard Wellesley, Governor-General 1798-1805, warned his aides to show respect to the Emperor as ‘almost every class of people… continue to acknowledge his nominal authroity’ during the most expansive period of empire-building, and it is arguable that British success was facilitated by this scrupulous regard for Mughal authority.” (16)
The rise of followers of Guru Nanak (nanak parasts), later known as Sikhs, provides an interesting case study. Alam discusses biradaris without explaining the full details. Bayly discusses Sikhs in context of another group that pays tribute to the Mughal court, similar to the group of Marathas. In another historian’s book, the organization is fleshed out as such:
The key positions within a biradari were occupied by those who controlled economic resources, mainly land. Such individuals often enjoyed proprietary rights (milkiat) over land and, additionally, they may have held the right to collect land-revenue payments (malguzari zamindari) for remittance to the state's coffers. Men with such rights emerged as the leaders of biradaris and were, in the local parlance, titled Chaudhuris. It was no coincidence that those who assisted the Lahore state to collect revenue at the village level were also called Chaudhuris. In this sense, an individual could occupy more than one social position.
The book also shows how the subsequent Sikh rule adopted the same way of governance as the Mughals—i.e., relying on allegiance of diverse social groups. It would have been more interesting if Alam could have explained what made the Sikhs so different than the other rebelling groups at the time, or link Mughal court legacies in later Sikh governance. I have also touched upon biradaris in my research on Shi‘is in north India.
One important aspect of Mughal rule I wish these books could address more was the religious institutions. Alam touches on the question of whose name was announced during the khutba and the tensions between the religious scholars and the Mughal court. Bayly also discusses how kings adopted Islamic titles and donated to Mecca in presenting their rule as Islamic. (p16) However, more analysis should be provided on the question of Islam and legitimacy in this time period. Alam’s other book The Languages of Political Islam in India: c. 1200-1800 discusses legitimacy in South Asia and examines the discourses about Islamic governance and ethics. I should revisit the book given my new knowledge of the larger Mughal historical debate.
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