Bhaskarjyoti Basu (ed) Explorations in Economic and Social History 1200 to 1900. Viswabharati. 2008.

24th April 2011


Dear Prof Bhaskarjypti Basu,

I have just finished reading your edited volume Explorations in Economic and Social History 1200-1900 all in a day. I could not put down the book once I begun reading the papers one after the other. In more common parlance, your book is “unputdownable”. I must congratulate you and hence the letter.

Before I read your book, I was reading volumes edited by Shireen Moosvi and Upinder Singh, both of which had scholars from eminent institutions, writing eruditely in polished language of high literary standards. The papers in your volume had little pretensions of erudition but the scholarship was vital and articulation direct. I get an immediate picture of India in the period 1200 to 1900 which I have never found so clearly in the works of the so-called eminent historians.

Your book challenges the idea of a single history of India by gleaning through regional sources of history that throw up a variegated view of what we largely know as the medieval and early modern period. The papers form pieces of a larger jigsaw puzzle, a puzzle that throws up a consistent picture of India despite the regional specificities.

Prof Suchibrata Sen’s study of Birbhum is especially close to my heart because I have become keenly interested in the history of this region as part of my campaign to end animal sacrifice. In this paper, I find that one way of upward mobility of a caste is to increase its numbers, then link assets, production and markets and consolidate its economic position even further. This is what happened in case of the Sadgops in Bengal and it is in the upward mobility of castes that Brahmins play a role. The Afghan zamindars seem to be indifferent to the goings on within the local economy and this indifference gets construed as benevolence. The principle of caste becomes a means of social control precisely because the State is so aloof from the economy and society. The Santhals seem to have spilled over into Birbhum from the Chhotanagur plateau, and are not really indigenous to the region is interesting. However, what really intrigues me is that how did the Sadgops become the numerically dominant caste? How did families unite together under the label of Sadgops? Did religion, worship of a deity play an important role? Or was the scale of production of food crops and size of land holding the crucial factors behind families coming together as a caste. In that case, class is the basic determinant of caste. I think that Prof Sen’s paper raises these rather important questions those might go into understanding caste more holistically for Indian sociologists.

The other important set of observations and inferences in the paper on Birbhum was religious syncretism. If the syncretism was an expression of communal pluralism, then why were famines not managed? Did famines occur in the Muslim rule because the State was indifferent towards the economy? Who maintained armies of henchmen? Was violence a means of accumulating surplus? How much of violence was part of everyday life? These are some of the interesting questions that came to my mind while reading through Prof Sen’s paper on Birbhum. Birbhum seems to be a better developed zone of West Bengal in terms of refined religions like Vaishnavism, Bauls, Fakirs and Sufis and such refined syncretism, when read together with Shouvik Mukhopadhyay’s paper on Tamil Nadu tells us, could not have been possible without the presence of a strong State, albeit non- interfering in everyday social life and the economy.

In Bipasha Raha’s paper on Raja Rammohan Roy and Akshay Dutta’s thoughts on the economy, one could see so many motifs emerging of modern India as we know it today. Rammohan’s discourse on the need of the State to step into protecting the peasant, in discussing how mechanization of farming could improve productivity on land and on how certain “measures” of surveying land and measurement of revenue on the basis of standing crops could help improve land and labour productivity in farming actually upholds the various systems of revenue assessment drawn out by the Mughals. Hence, Rammohan seems to repose faith in a medieval system for achieving modernization of agriculture in India. This is a great revelation. In Akshay Dutta’s thoughts on the economy, one finds seeds of agrarian policy of Independent India already taking shape where he places the tiller of land rather than the title holder of land in charge of improving farming practices. Dutta’s thesis that the farmer had to be socially strengthened in terms of education, morals, customs, religion and health so that they could directly claim titles to land rather than the absentee zamindars and their rural agents. Dutta saw that the new rural middle class was a menace to the reconstruction of a new India and tied revolution in farming with empowerment and capacity building of the rural masses. Nabin Krishna Bose of Bethune Society actually hinted at land reforms and the State entering into a direct dealing with the farmer. I wish the author could dwell more on Nabin Krishna. In all the three thinkers we see an imagination of the constructive role of the State, which in India, as Suchibrata Sen and Shouvik Mukhopadhyay tell, was never really as inconsequential as we imagine.

When Bipasha Raha’s paper is read together with Chhanda Chatterjee’s paper on Punjab, one is intrigued to see that many of Nabin Krishna Bose’s recommendations were actually put into practice by the East India Company in this region. The reason why the Permanent Settlement never really happened in Punjab was perhaps because this was the area for recruiting the soldiers for the British army and land was a way in which the Sepoy could contentedly live; it was important that the interests of the peasant-Sepoy was maintained. It is interesting how the award of land titles created, through a land market, a huge circulation of credit and when land to the tiller was actually awarded as Nabin Krishna Bose had recommended, the economy shrunk, farmers suffered poverty and even land alienation. Setting up of cooperative banks shrunk retail commerce, encouraged speculation in grains and threw off many off their small businesses, completely the reverse of what one expect. Interestingly, both in Bengal and Punjab those very institutions that helped Europe to modernize and develop derailed the economy.

One could sense so much of the present day Punjab and the Punjabi culture through this paper. The inner competition and conflict among Punjabis, their ostentation and showing off because that is the only way they can increase their social net worth, the contempt for civic discipline and the talent to duck laws and rules seem to have emerged from those very tenets of the colonial government that Bengal and Maharashtra would hold as beneficial. Could the Partition been an extension of such sentiments? Could the virulent sub nationalism that ravaged Punjab in the 1980 have also been a continuation of such a social organization where rules and laws that we extol of modern and beneficial cease to be benevolent in Punjab?

Only a sense of society, a sense of sovereignty and a sense of the nation or of the State present in Europe and absent in India could lead to such different outcomes as the authors mention in the above papers. It is in this perspective of social cohesion that I could place Arpita Sen’s paper on the Khasis along with Sandeep Basu Sarbadhikary’s work on Burma. The papers on the Khasis and the Burmese helped me understand that while these are very different societies, the structure of production is organized in manners that require constant movement over large tracts of land of humans and animals. This makes such tribes repeatedly clash with settled agriculturists, contest with other claimants on land and defy the State. Burma and the Khasis are both tribal, very different from the caste societies with distinct culture, language group and religion and both were subject to colonial aggression and eventually to annexation. Both resisted and resented modernization but because of greater degree of social cohesion among the Khasis than among the Burmese, the Khasis evolved, revolted, modernized and grew into positions of strength and moral cohesion; while the Burmese became violent, intolerant, and rebellious but also criminals. The modernization of the Khasis, albeit not without internal debates and differences cultivated the Khasi culture that was circulated through literature, printing press and village arts, theatre and dramatics. The Burmese, on the other hand degenerated into amorality and anomie. Popular culture and social cohesion, political integration and economic success are seen to be critically connected. Social cohesion thus plays a crucial role in how communities would adapt to new situations and respond to political exigencies; this has been my learning from the four papers that I mention above.

Shouvik Mukhopadhyay’s paper on the military culture of Tamil Nadu has been an eye opener. Indeed, like many lay persons, I also imagined that the south is staid and civil, but one learns through the present paper that this was far from true. The more violent tribes may have lived in the regions of drier agriculture and then extended into the plains and finally integrated into the peasant society. This transformation is captured through the Goddess cults where vicious deities that were closer to ghosts and spirits became more benevolent and finally spouses of leading male Gods like Shiva and later Vishnu. I am familiar with this process in Burdwan where many deities who were virulent blood suckers are absorbed into the pantheon of the Puranas. In either case, such transformations hint at the emergence of peasant States like the Pallavas in south India and the Senas in Bengal. To the best of my understanding the transformation of a spirit like presence into a deity also means the consolidation of a sthal, or sthan into a mandir or a devasthan and in such spatial transformations, one finds new forms of social relations among groups around the temple. Such new social relations may also have been important aspects of caste society as it emerged out of tribal societies in many places.

In your paper on the weavers and Jeyaseela’s paper on the indigenous merchants in Pondicherry, we find that the success of a capitalist class rests on the success of commodity production which in turns depends on stable food production economies. For all of these things to happen, apart from law and order, one needs a relative distance from the powers of the State, and a fine balance in social cohesion among the various communities and castes. The crash of the indigenous economy of India was mainly due to this crash of the balancing points in which the foreign powers like the French and the Dutch were among other factors and definitely not the only ones. The exhaustion of possibilities of the mansabdari system and yet the insistence of the Mughal powers based out of Golconda on its imposition, the Maratha marauders that ripped through such administration played equally important roles in ending the prosperity of merchants and weavers and eventually through pressure on farming land overcrowded agriculture, made caste competitive and exploitative and finally lost political autonomy.

Syed Eijaz Hussain’s work on Patna mint is intriguing because the history of coinage that emanates out of this area despite there being no silver mines boggles one’s mind. There are two things that come to the mind on reading through this paper; one was the superior technology of casting, stamping and forging, not to forget the arms factories in Mungher and other places in North Bihar and the rise of Sher Shah from this place. Patna seems to have a pre-Mughal history, and later Patna seems to be the only place to have had a substantial Sikh religious power outside Punjab. Who then were the Biharis? How did they acquire such superior knowledge, did they continue to have a passage with the more superior Chinese through the Buddhist routes beyond Nalanda? These are some of the questions that immediately arise in the mind.

Tilottama Mukherji’s paper on pilgrimage is interesting too. One would have wondered that pilgrim spots were created to mark out the culture of India in terms of territory but the paper under discussion shows that these were also veritable tourist spots and the prevalence of pilgrimage shows that contrary to our image of India as being locked up in little villages, one gets to see that Indian’s are great travelers and adventurers. The economy around pilgrim centres, these being also shelters for vagabonds euphemistically called as sanyasis, fakirs and so on. The culture of fairs, festivals, street theatre and other performances that develop around the pilgrim spots can be called as genuine popular culture in a sharp contrast to the Khasi plays that are especially composed as instruments of cultural and political ideology. The popular culture at the fairs involve spectacles, movements, colours, audio visual stimulations that contrast sharply with the more argumentative and discursive components of the drama. Both these trends seemed to have come together in the modern cinema.

I am truly impressed by the level of scholarship in the present volume which despite is rather shoddy production has nonetheless made me feel very enlightened and therefore, enormously intellectually satisfied. I wish you well for your future endeavours.


Yours sincerely,

Susmita Dasgupta


About secondsaturn

Independent Scholar. Thinker and not doer. Too lazy to succeed. Indifferent towards career. But pursues excellence.
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