Magnus Marsden and Benjamin D. Hopkins
Afghanistan has long been conventionally regarded as a remote space peripheral to the wider world. Yet scholarship produced in the 2nd decade of the 21st century suggests its multiple connections to a wide array of regions and settings. Such connections are especially visible when viewed through the lens of the trade networks originating from the territories of modern Afghanistan. Scholars have come to recognize that Afghan traders have long been active players in many contexts across Asia and beyond. Such traders and the networks they form play a critically important role in connecting different parts of Asia with one another, including South Asia and Eurasia, as well as East and West Asia. The connective role performed by Afghan caravanners and religious minorities in the trade between India and Central Asia are especially well documented by historians. Increasingly so too are the activities of Afghan merchants in Ottoman territories. The trading networks Afghan traders have participated in are historically dynamic. Their orientating values shift across time and space between various forms of religious, ethno-linguistic, and political identity. The capacity to adapt to changing circumstances is helpful in understanding the continuing relevance of Afghan traders to 21st-century forms of globalized capitalism, in contexts as varied as the former Soviet Union, China, and the Arabian Peninsula.
The history of the Bengali community in Assam, along with many other communities such as the Marwari traders and the Nepalis, can be dated to the early decades of British rule in Assam when the East India Company found itself relying on Bengali amlahs (court officials) for its policing, legal and revenue administration of the newly acquired kingdom of Assam. The Bengali community grew partly due to the encouragement that the Company gave the Bengali language by using it in its courts, administration, and schools. While in 1873 Assamese replaced Bengali as the medium of instruction and language of the court, with some caveats and exceptions, the province of Assam, which was formed in 1874, brought together four historically distinct spaces in the region, including the two Bengali-speaking districts (Sylhet and Cachar) of the Barak-Surma Valley. The decades leading to Partition witnessed various factors, including employment opportunities and cultural and linguistic belonging, leading to contradictory pulls in Sylhet and Cachar on the question of whether it should be integrated with Bengal or Assam. Another important factor was the growth of linguistically based Assamese nationalism whose politics lay in the articulation of a unique Assamese literary and cultural identity along with the securing of employment opportunities. The latter would lead to a demand of an Assamese homeland free of competition from the Bengali middle class. A referendum in July 1947 based on limited franchise led to Sylhet being integrated to Pakistan while Cachar remained part of Assam and India. Other than the Bengali-speaking communities of Sylhet and Cachar, a history of the Bengali-speaking communities in Assam involves the story of peasant cultivators from East Bengal who continuously migrated into Assam in the early decades of the 20th century. While earlier pre-colonial patterns of migration were seasonal, the colonial state’s primary aim of acquiring high agrarian revenue led to specific policies and schemes that encouraged peasant migration into Assam from East Bengal. This further encouraged an intensification of commercial agriculture especially jute, changes in the transport network in the Brahmaputra valley, a developed credit network, and some local elements such as Marwari businessmen and Assamese moneylenders. However, with time this migration created conditions of insecurity for Assamese peasants who faced ejection from their lands as a result of the growing competition for cultivable land and higher rents. The colonial state’s attempt at regulating the migration—such as through the Line System in the 1920s—became a site of contestation among many emerging nationalist and political perspectives, whether of the Congress, the Muslim League or others. The tussle between the preservation of the rights and claims of indigenous peasants over grazing and forest reserves and those of Bengali Muslim immigrants over land defined the politics of the 1940s in Assam until Partition.
A resurgence of writings on labor in India in the 1990s occurred in a context when many scholars in the Anglo-American world were predicting the end of labor history. Over the last three decades, historical writing on labor in India has pushed old boundaries, opened up new lines of inquiry, unsettling earlier assumptions and frameworks. Teleological frames that saw industrialization leading to modernization were critiqued starting in the 1980s. Since then, historians writing on labor have moved beyond simple binaries between notions of the pre-modern/modern workforce to critically examine the conflictual processes through which histories of labor were shaped.
With the opening up of the field, a whole range of new questions are being posed and old ones reframed. How do cultural formations shape the specificity of the labor force? How important are kinship, community, and caste ties in the making of working class lives and work culture? What defines the peculiarities of different forms of work at different sites: plantations and mines, factories and domestic industries, the “formal” and the “informal” sectors? What were the diverse ways in which work was regulated and workers disciplined? What were the ritual and cultural forms in which workers negotiated the conditions of their work? How does the history of law deepen an understanding of the history of labor? Studies on mobility and migration, on law and informality, on culture and community, on everyday actions and protest have unraveled the complex interconnections—global and local—through which the lives of labor are made and transformed.
Delhi’s past begins in the stone age; this is evident from the stone tools found as surface finds at many places and the excavated site of Anangpur. Remains of the protohistoric period have been unearthed at Bhorgarh and Mandoli. Ashoka’s Minor Rock Edict I indicates that Maurya influence extended into this area. Sites such as the Purana Qila reveal a cultural sequence extending from the early historic to the medieval period. The medieval remains of the Qutb complex include a Gupta-period pillar, many aspects of which remain enigmatic. Remains of the Rajput and early Sultanate phase have been found at Lal Kot. Although the details provided by the textual, archaeological, epigraphic and numismatic evidence are sparse, they help outline the history of rural and urban settlements in the Delhi area long before it became an important political center.
The category “middle class” can refer to quite different social entities. In the United States, it is often used as a synonym for “ordinary folk.” In the United Kingdom it references an elite with economic and social privileges. In India, “the middle class” acquired its own valence through a history that encompasses colonialism, nationalism, and desire for upward social mobility. At one level the Indian middle class was evidently derivative. Indians who wished to emulate the achievements and standing of the British middle class adopted the category, “middle class” as a self-descriptor. Yet the Indian middle class was hardly a modular replica of a metropolitan “original.” The context of colonialism, indigenous hierarchies, and various local histories shaped the nature of the Indian middle class as much as any colonial model. Composed of people—often salaried professionals—who were reasonably well off but not among India’s richest, being middle class in colonial India was less a direct product of social and economic standing and more the result of endeavors of cultural and political entrepreneurship. These efforts gave the middle class its shape and its aspirations to cultural and political hegemony. The same history, in turn, shaped a variety of discourses about the nature of society, politics, culture, and morality in both colonial and post-independent India. Contradictions were inherent in the constitution of the middle class in colonial India, and continue to be apparent today. These contradictions become even more evident as newer, formerly subaltern social groups, seek to participate in a world created through middle class imaginations of society, culture, politics and economics.
Water-related disputes in India have been a fraught area of contestation between state governments in the post-colonial period. Since the late 20th century, much of this conflict has been centered on mechanisms of legal adjudication both through the centralized state machinery of tribunals set up by the central government and by legal suits brought by states before the Supreme Court. Formal records of tribunal and court judgments provide skeletal accounts of legal claims, technical evidence, and judiciary responses between unitary state governments with hardened positions and conflicting interests. Tamil Nadu, a lower riparian state is reliant on water-sharing arrangements and the shared management of water-related infrastructure with its three neighboring states of Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, and Kerala. The water-related agreements that link Tamil Nadu with its neighbors vary in significant ways in terms of the scope of the agreements, the kinds of issues under contention, the political dynamics of the agreement, and the outcome and implementation of each of the agreements. Political, institutional, and agential dimensions of state action are both shaped and constrained by historical structures of political economy. Both centralized structures of the colonial state and the political economy of India’s planned developmental state shape this set of interstate water negotiations and disputes that weigh on the states that share water resources and infrastructure in Southern India. While historical processes have produced the structural conditions that have shaped such disputes, recent policies of liberalization have intensified conflicts over water. For instance, processes of urbanization and city-centric models of growth have increased pressures on water resources in India. Social scientific scholarship that has focused on the politics of economic reforms and on the ways in which reforms have been shaped by India’s federal structure has tended to treat states as discrete entities. Such scholarship has analyzed the impact of India’s federal structure on reforms through a focus on relationships between states and the central government. While this has produced a heightened focus on the significance of federalism in the post-liberalization period, such work has paid less attention to relationships between states. The focus of such social scientific scholarship on particular sectors of the economy (such as telecom, electricity, and land/real estate) that are visibly associated with reform policies has compounded this analytical gap. Unlike such sectors, water is not contained within the territorial boundaries of states. A historical perspective on water disputes provides a means for unsettling the conventional analytical boundaries of political scientific conceptions of federalism in the post-liberalization period.
With a distinct geographic setting encompassing the vast grassland of Banni, the white salty desert expanse, hilly mass, and a long coastline, the northwestern Indian region of Kachchh is a place of spellbinding landscapes. People residing in such a light-rain region are exposed to diverse cultures and distinctive ways of life, beliefs, and practices. Alongside a vast and diverse expanse on the northwest, Kachchh has a maritime history determined chiefly by centuries of deep-sea sailing and trading experience in the Indian Ocean. The mercantile age of this mystic region reached the height of its glory in the late 18th and 19th centuries. But way before such a fascinating historical stage was set, there was the process of transforming a geographically complex region to the most commercially connected state through the métier of the sea. This land, with its close links to the sea and to the rest of India in the mid-16th century, was brought under the centralized administration by the Jadejas. Ever since its inception, the Jadeja rule contributed to the entrepreneurship and the growth of trade through a wide range of policy measures including building up ports such as Mandvi (c. 1581). Being aware of the agricultural disadvantages, in different ways the state facilitated entrepreneurism and exploitable opportunities.
In the 18th century, the rise of the new merchants of Mandvi coincided with the rise of Omani imperial expansion to East Africa: both groups exploited the shifts in their favor. The initial Omani reliance over the budding Kachchhi capital not only nurtured the rise of Muscat but also the ambitious East African expedition. The Omani inroads into the Swahili coast accelerated the trade between Kachchh, Arabia, and East Africa. As a result, the Portuguese intervention in the early 16th century in Asian trade paved the way to new patterns of commerce. Those who benefited the most from these inviting developments and major shifts in western Indian Ocean patterns were Kachchhis: by this period they had successfully established closer commercial ties with Muscat and Bombay. Also in this opportunistic time, the increase of the Omani interest at Zanzibar helped the entrepreneurs from Kachchh to retain the existing commercial ties and develop substantial commercial relations with East Africa. The increasing Kachchhi presence also threatened the dominant position of the traders, especially from Diu, as their trading activities on the east coast became quite noticeable from the 1820s and 1830s. Yet emergence of Mandvi as a significant port of trade and shipbuilding center during the declining importance of Surat in the mid-18th century set the stage for the Kachchhi mercantile activities in the western Indian Ocean. Kachchhis intensely exploited the early expanding coastal commerce in the region and managed to divert the flow of the trade from Zanzibar to Mandvi and Bombay by the early 19th century. The common element among these merchants was their close mercantile association with the expansive Bombay harbor. This kept the Bombay-based merchants of various communities commercially connected with the Kachchhi enterprise in East Africa. Without their commercial synchronization the Kachchhis would not have secured their commanding position overseas. Yet the Kachchhi entrepreneurs’ overseas commercial connections helped flood the Bombay market with high-value goods and transformed Bombay into a major reexportation center, which catered to the demands of the international market. Reciprocally, Bombay’s strategic location and trading contacts helped Kachchhi entrepreneurs flourish in many ports along the western Indian Ocean, including Mandvi and Zanzibar.
Kachchhi capitalists managed to emerge as important economic players through a profitable and indigenous commercial system. These proto-capitalists eventually popularized fiscal transactions in the precapitalist society of East Africa, which considerably decreased the functioning of exchanges in kind. Their credit operations had also achieved complexity in terms of money and treasure transfer along with the alteration to the transitory and lasting forces. One such enduring force was neo-imperialism, which partially jolted the indigenous market economy. The effect was partial because the Kachchhi oceanic merchants quickly merged the Western trading practices with their own. These sophisticated trade and banking methods globalized the profile of the Kachchhi enterprise, especially in East Africa. The control over the bazaar economy, especially, allowed the Kachchhis to negotiate the favorable business deals. For instance, the ivory bazaar in Zanzibar was chiefly controlled by the Kachchhis, although the Euro-American capitalists were in fierce competition to capture it. The open bazaar economy empowered Kachchhis to carry out millions of transactions. Rajat Kanta Ray (1995) suggested that bazaars should not be seen merely as the peddlers joint. Though the Asian firms’ business practices were distinct from the Euro-American business practices, the success of the South Asian trading method, especially in high-value commodities, was quite visible. This effectiveness compelled the Western merchants to accommodate the South Asian business system. On many occasions, the efficient execution of the indigenous business practices did spin off a sort of business dependency for the Western counterparts. Such business dependency facilitated South Asian merchants’ firmer consolidation in the transnational trading world of the Indian Ocean and prepared them to play a global role.
Kachchhi commercial practices, which are not widely recorded, represent the South Asian model of enterprise and debunk the idea that this model was subordinate to Western/European capitalist systems. Usually the foundation of markets, capital, and business dependency have been dynamic and produced a significant literature. Yet quite a few offer the nuanced study of the system of reliance and reciprocity. The least consulted trust and will literature of these traders sheds light on the shared social responsibilities of the commercial world. The complex capitalist enterprise of these merchants gravitated toward nafo (i.e., profit), chiefly when oriented toward the idea of migration to East Africa. However, this long-distance enterprise, which was closely connected with Bombay and Mandvi, was based, as Dungarshi Sampat (1935) emphasizes, on the cardinal maxim of trust. So even though the profit-minded trading operations of Kachchhis prompted their contemporaries to label them unconscionable men of money, their business ethics operated on trust and reciprocity and so won them the best trading opportunities. Their pursuance of certain conventional tacit and thoughtful approaches did much to facilitate quick global commercial deals.
Casting a wide net over these varied histories, this article reflects on the potentially diverging themes surrounding polity and trade, merchants and migration, language of business, the structure of trade, the sailing tradition, the marine insurance, the system of apprenticeship, the mercantile community and guild dynamics, the unique banking houses, expanding textile production for the foreign markets, and the commercial connections between hinterland and merchants. Emphasizing, however, the importance of more diverse themes, this range of factors in turn weaves a single thread into the larger story of Kachchhi enterprise, which ties into the even wider story of the East African economy in the 19th century.
Paradise lost, on fire, or on a river of hell: purple prose abounds in descriptions of Kashmir today. But in this instance, the hyperbole may be alarmingly close to reality. Since 1989–1990, Kashmir (i.e., the Valley rather than the entire state of Jammu and Kashmir for which the name is often informally used) has been a battleground pitting a popularly backed insurgency—sometimes accompanied by armed militancy—against Indian state dominance undergirded by one of the highest concentrations of armed forces among civilians in the world. The armed forces are about 700,000 strong in the Valley, producing an astonishing average of one soldier for every eleven civilians. A death toll in calamitous numbers (perhaps 70,000 killed and 8,000 “disappeared”, many of whom are presumed dead) countless instances of rape and torture, and the declining health of civil liberties as of individuals in Kashmir have many worried.
Most accounts seeking to explain this state of affairs begin around August 14–15, 1947. On this day were born not only the two nation-states of India and Pakistan but also the rival claims of both to Kashmir. If Kashmir’s troubles were only about the Indo-Pakistani territorial contestation, 1947 would be where to start. However, the “Kashmir Problem” encompasses other contentious aspects that have drawn less attention and whose roots are buried deeper in time. These include a crisis of legitimate governance and the interweaving of religion and politics—all playing out in the midst of contested relations between different loci of central and local power. A narrow focus on the year 1947 alone, moreover, holds Kashmir’s history hostage to Indian and Pakistani official narratives. This is evident in the work of countless political scientists and policy experts. New scholarship has pushed historical examination to go further back by at least a century, if not more, to capture vital transformations in the understandings of sovereignty, territoriality, and the legitimacy to rule that shaped Kashmiris well before 1947. These changes cast long shadows that reach into the present.
Contemporary India is among the top seven countries in the world witnessing the rise of mega urban regions, infrastructural expansion by government and private entities, and acceleration of special economic zones; the fallout of these trends has been the loss of cropland, and massive resistance coupled with political destabilization. Since the 1990s India’s political economy has increasingly been defined by land dispossession. Indeed, some politicians and big industrialists argue that the developmental agenda of India remains an unfulfilled dream because of land scarcity. On the other hand, strong grass-roots protest movements against land grab have toppled reigning governments and, in some cases, managed to thwart the outward march of land capitalization, dispossession, and ecological degradation. Land ownership remains a protean issue for Indian politics and its social matrix. Yet, it is not a recent phenomenon.
Land acquisition and dispossession have a long genealogy in India and have gone through successive stages, engendering new political modalities within different economic regimes. Although not a settler colony, the East India Company grabbed land from the 18th century onward, dispossessing and uprooting people in the process, while alienating and disembedding land from its social matrix. Beginning with the Permanent Settlement of agricultural lands in eastern India in 1793, the Company sought legal authority to justify taking land, thus initiating a regime of quasi-eminent domain claims upon land for a wide range of practices, among them salt manufacturing, urbanization, infrastructure, and railways. The political authority and dubious legitimacy of the joint-stock company acting as a trustee of land was written into the various laws on land acquisition, ultimately culminating in the colonial Land Acquisition Act (LAA) of 1894. While independent India envisioned distributive justice through land redistribution, land acquisition and dispossession continued unabated, and postcolonial India’s land acquisition law merely offered procedural legitimacy to the act of taking land from people against their will for the greater “public,” and thereafter for public–private partnership. From 1947 state-led development resulted in the expropriation of land for industrialization, dams, and mega-infrastructural projects resulting in massive development-induced displacement across the country. India’s economic liberalization from the 1990s began a transnational movement of capital on an unprecedented scale, which manifested itself as an emerging configuration of real-estate-as-development. The government of India created new legal entitlements for private companies by enacting the Special Economic Zone (SEZ) Act in 2005 for export industries, IT companies, mining companies, and supporting real-estate development, resulting in dispossession, resistance, land speculation, and the emergence of land mafias.
The literary history of Bengal is characterized by a multilingual ecology that nurtured the development of Middle Bengali literature. It is around the turn of the second millennium, during the Pāla period (c. 8th–12th century), that eastern South Asia became a major region for the production of literary texts in Sanskrit and Apabhramsha. Early on, Bengal developed a distinct literary identity within the Sanskrit tradition and, despite abrupt political transitions and the fragmentation of the landscape of literary patronage, fundamental aspects of the literary culture of Pāla Bengal were transmitted during later periods. It was during the Sultanate period, from the 14th century onward that courtly milieus began to cultivate Middle Bengali. This patronage was mostly provided by upper-caste Hindu dignitaries and (in the case of lyric poetry at least) by the Sultans themselves. During the period ranging from the 15th to the early 19th centuries, vernacular literature can be divided into two broad categories: short narrative forms called padas or gītas (songs), which were often composed in an idiom derived from songs by the Old Maithili poet Vidyāpati (c. 1370–1460); and long narrative forms in Middle Bengali called pā̃cālīs, which are characterized by the alternation of the prosodic forms called paẏār and tripadī and the occasional insertion of songs.
These poetic forms are the principal markers of the literary identity of Bengal and eastern South Asia (including Assam, Orissa, and Arakan). The Ḥusayn Shāhī period (1433–1486) contributed to the consolidation and expansion eastward of vernacular literary practices. Then, the political landscape became fragmented, and the multiplication of centers of literary production occurred. This fragmentation fostered the formation of new, locally grounded literary trends. These could involve the cultivation of specific genres, the propounding of various religious doctrines and ritual practices, the fashioning of new idioms fostered by either dialectal resources, classical idioms such as Sanskrit or Persian, and other vernacular poetic traditions (Maithili, Avadhi, Hindustani). The late Mughal and early colonial periods witnessed the making of new trends, characterized by a radical modification of the lexical component of the Middle Bengali idiom (i.e., Dobhāṣī), or the recourse to scripts other than Bengali (e.g., Sylhet Nagari/Kaithi, Arabic). The making of such new trends often implied changes in the way that authors interacted with Sanskrit, Persian, and other vernacular traditions. For instance, Persian played as crucial a role as Sanskrit in the various trajectories that Middle Bengali poetry took. On the one hand, Persian in Bengal had a history distinct from that of Bengali; on the other hand, it constituted a major traditional model for Bengali authors and, at times, Persianate education replaced the one based on Sanskrit as the default way to access literacy.
Even if Middle Bengali poetic forms continued to be used in the context of various traditional performances, the making of a new literary language in the 19th century, the adoption of Western genres, and the development of prose and Western prosodic forms occasioned a radical break with premodern literary practices. From the second half of the 19th century, with the notable exception of some ritual and sectarian texts, access to the ancient literature of Bengal began to be mediated by philological analysis and textual criticism.
Bangladesh is a relatively young state with an agile political heart. Its emergence in 1971 as an independent state accompanied the familiar elements of modern polities, as reflected in the major principles of its first constitution: nationalism, secularism, democracy, and socialism (in the sense of social justice). Yet a prehistory and posthistory of the birth of Bangladesh are replete with contestations, tensions, and quests for new meanings for these categories, providing intriguing windows to the challenges and opportunities facing governance, ideologies, and public life in the country.
In the modern period, between the transition to British colonial rule and present times, Bangladesh (part of Bengal until 1947 and East Pakistan until 1971) has been shaped and reshaped by several interrelated historical developments. The idea of nationhood was not a linear one thriving on a certain space, religion, or ethnicity at a given moment, the constant thread of collective national imagination being the desire for economic emancipation from a British colonial system and protracted military rule in Pakistan. But the poverty and deprivation that continued after the independence raised questions about the perception of the postcolonial state as the sole liberator. Since the 1990s, although inequality and poverty have remained constant, Bangladesh has seen remarkable economic growth and a relatively better human-development index, making it a potent partner in the recent spell of Asian economic growth. Democracy and citizenship, however, have remained the weakest link, occasionally leading to military rule or dictated democracy. Amid all visible ups and downs in its political, economic, and social life, Bangladesh remains a vibrant nation-space in the increasingly interconnected modern world.
Within the study of the modern period of Nepali history, history is considered here both as a narrative with its internal logic, notably the periodization of history produced by Nepali historians, as well as a series of statements, events, regulations, etc., which are incorporated in this narrative. Periodization of history in Nepal establishes a direct and necessary link between modern Nepal and its national territory. Indeed, the beginning of the modern era is determined by the “unification” of the fifty independent kingdoms and tribal territories that gave birth to the anational territory of Nepal during the second half of the 18th century. Such a correspondence makes modernity and the unified territory of Nepal coincide in a single space time. Yet, a closer examination of the logic behind periodization sheds light on its Kathmandu-centric, and dynastic perspective. This resulted in the formation of a hybrid conception of the national territory and of its center of power. From being the standard of the territory’s time and space, the Kathmandu Valley became the chronotope of the historical narrative dealing with the first half of the 19th century. It continued to form the territory’s remarkable center following the seizing of power by the Rana prime ministers (1846–1951), but now by assuming a futurist dimension, which conversely, plunged the rest of the country back in time.
Michael H. Fisher
Founded in 1526, the Mughal Empire expanded during the late 16th and 17th centuries across almost the entire Indian subcontinent (except for the southern peninsular tip). At its peak, the empire contained roughly 1.24 million square miles and about 150 million people (half of western Europe in size but double its population). The imperial dynasty was originally Turco-Mongol. But, especially under Emperor Akbar (r. 1556–1605), the dynasty established the Mughal Empire by incorporating Hindu and other Indian cultures and mobilizing India’s human and natural resources more effectively than any previous state there. Nonetheless, emperors almost constantly faced rebellions and revolts by rival members of the dynasty, imperial administrators, army commanders, regional rulers, and popular movements. By the early 18th century, the empire fragmented into successor states, but the dynasty remained on the throne until 1858 when the British Empire finally displaced it.
Throughout, the imperial court patronized extensive histories and literature (in Persian and a range of Indian languages) and works of architecture and representational arts. The imperial administration compiled detailed records, including about the court, army, and the lands it ruled. Historians, from the time of the empire onward, have used these diverse source materials in their own analyses.
Aruna Pulipaka Magier
Because so much of South Asia’s archival and primary source materials as well as precolonial and colonial-era published sources traditionally referred to by historians reside in physical archives and libraries that are difficult to access, the work of individual historians until recently had often been limited to resources they could access only from significant collections outside of South Asia, such as those at the British Library and at some major US research libraries. Research travel to South Asia to consult domestic collections there has always been expensive, impractical, and too often an exceedingly challenging endeavor because of the local limitations on access. But with the growth of the internet since the 1990s, and the relative ease of putting materials online, there has been an explosion of small- and large-scale efforts at digitization and online publishing of more unique and previously inaccessible treasures from South Asia. As of the early 2000s, a wealth of valuable open-access as well as commercially produced and distributed content is available online to scholars of South Asian history.
However, this profusion itself has created new challenges. The lack of selectivity, peer review, or other quality evaluations for much internet publishing, the dearth of standards for long-term website continuity and presentation, the absence of centralized pathways for structured discovery of these resources, the bewildering array of user interfaces, the increasing monetization of online access to primary source content, and the inadequate attention to digital preservation all make this universe of digital content a far from ideal setting for historical research. To enable historians more effectively to identify authoritative online sources that meet their research needs and how to access them, collaborative endeavors by South Asia librarians and academic institutions are beginning to yield useful results and to create orderly oases in the general chaos of the internet.
The origin of British India can be traced to warfare in 18th-century Europe and India, trade-related conflicts and disputes, and the East India Company’s business model. The state that emerged from these roots survived by reforming the institutions of capitalism, military strategy, and political strategy. As the 19th century unfolded and its power became paramount, the Company evolved from a trading firm to a protector of trade. The rapid growth of the three port cities where Indo-European trade and naval power was concentrated exemplifies that commitment. But beyond maintaining an army and protecting trade routes, the state remained limited in its reach.
The Parsi community enjoyed a special status in western India as enterprising traders, who were quick to appreciate the advantages of the British connection especially in driving a huge trade in the Indian Ocean and specifically with China from roughly the latter half of the 18th century. Arriving in India as asylum seekers, the community quickly adapted to the host society by adopting the local language (Gujarati) and by deploying their commercial and manufacturing skills in consolidating their social location in the region. They were mindful of the ruling powers and developed over time important strategies of working closely with local interests, so much so that they acquired a foothold in landed and commercial society. It was in the late 17th and 18th centuries that they forged important links with European traders and trading companies, working as brokers for procurement of textiles and in the process acquiring a very close understanding of foreign markets. This was an important resource that enabled the community to play a major role on the emerging proto-colonial trade of western India, largely channeled through Bombay. The late 18th and 19th centuries saw the community produce major players and merchants of renown who amassed considerable wealth from the trade in raw cotton and opium with China and invested that wealth in philanthropy and subsequently in entrepreneurship. The community was primarily located in Bombay and western India, although their ventures took them as far as Calcutta and Canton. More recently there has been a considerable volume of scholarship on the community, emphasizing its origins, its histories and self-representation, and its use of the English colonial law in defining its own status and streamlining its customs.
With an estimated thirty million or more in Pakistan, twelve million in Afghanistan, and perhaps a million or more in a global diaspora, Pashtuns or Pukhtuns comprise a complex ethno-linguistic population with a rich cultural tradition and literature, varied political and economic contexts, and diverse national and Islamic identities. Historic and literary references to communities that have been thought to identify “Afghans” date to the 10th century and, according to the source and scholar consulted, many centuries earlier. The assumption of any uniquely “Pashtun” identity as equivalent to the diverse “Afghan” cultural, religious, and ethnic identities that evolved over centuries has obfuscated a full understanding of the emergence of distinct regional Pashtun ethno-linguistic communities and the origins of frequently studied cultural idioms. Millions of Pashtuns have lived in close and daily contact with many other ethnic groups (Tajiks, Hazaras, Uzbeks, Turkmen, Baluch, Punjabis, etc.), and color-coded maps of ethnic homelands in Afghanistan and Pakistan are best seen as guides to often complex social geographies rather than absolute markers of ethnically pure settlement areas.
For perhaps a thousand years, Pashtuns and regional forefathers have circulated within imperial and merchant networks connected by Silk Road pathways, Persian and north Indian trade routes, and Indian Ocean sea lanes. Pashtuns sought livelihoods as horse traders, military entrepreneurs, agrarian pioneers, and regional rulers in the northern, eastern, and Deccan regions of India. An Afghan state with variable territorial claims consolidated after 1747. Leading Pashtun clans from around Kandahar and the eastern districts took positions in the dynasties that soon ruled from Kabul and core provinces.
Pashtuns between the Oxus and Indus rivers adapted to, avoided, and served 18th- and 19th-century Russian and British imperial economic and political forces. In the high European “new imperialism” of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Afghan territories were framed by treaty-negotiated boundaries. Never colonized, Afghanistan became economically dependent on British–India subsidies and linkages. Into the mid-20th century, Afghanistan’s Pashtun political dynasties and Islamic and political activists on both sides of the British-Indian Durand Line offered leadership and alternative visions of the future to anticolonial and Muslim nationalists, including those in British India.
In recent decades, core Pashtun homelands and diasporic communities have fully experienced the disruptions and violence that followed the partition of British India in 1947, postcolonial “national” consolidation, conflict between India and Pakistan over Kashmir, Cold War alliances and conflict, the rise and fall of the Taliban, and civil war. Like others, Pashtun lives were shaped by the transnational dynamics of economic globalization, urbanization, migration, and the international crises that traumatized the world after September 11, 2001.
Since the seminal publication of Kenneth Pomeranz’s The Great Divergence (2000), there has been a continuing upsurge of writings on the possible reasons behind the rise of the West from a “global perspective.” Most of these studies focus on comparisons between Western Europe and China. Yet, in recent years works on India and the great divergence have followed suit, taking up research questions that have not been as prominent since the proliferation of debates on the subcontinent’s pre-colonial potentialities for capitalist development in the 1960s and 1970s. As of now, the paucity of quantitative data complicates endeavors to compare pre-colonial India with Europe and explore the underlying reasons behind the great divergence. Case studies examining the socio-economic history of a number of South Asian regions are still needed in order to conduct systematic comparisons between “core areas” of the subcontinent and those of Western Europe. The existing evidence, however, suggests that some of the advanced regions of 16th- to 18th-century India had more or less comparable levels of agricultural productivity, transport capacities (during the dry season), military capabilities in terms of ground forces (e.g., Mysore and the Marathas), commercial and manufacturing capacities (especially in textile, ship, and metal production), and social mobility of merchants (e.g., in Gujarat). Moreover, Indian rulers and artisans did not shy away from adopting European know-how (e.g., in weapon and ship production) when it redounded to their advantage. On the other hand, South Asia possessed some geo-climatic disadvantages vis-à-vis Western Europe that also impeded investments in infrastructure. India had a lower degree of consumer demand and lagged behind Western Europe in a number of fields such as mechanical engineering, the level of productive forces, higher education, circulation of useful knowledge, institutional efficiency, upper-class property rights, the nascent bourgeois class consciousness, and inter-communal and proto-national identity formations.
Various forms of labor obligation, coercion, and oppression existed in colonial India, but the supposed dichotomy between “free” and “unfree” labor was rarely absolute. European slave-trafficking, internal trades in women and children, domestic slavery, caste-based obligations for agricultural and other labor, and capitalist systems such as indenture represented distinct but overlapping forms of “unfree” labor in the South Asian context. Enslaved Indians were exported to various European colonial possessions in the 17th and 18th century or provided domestic services within the homes of both the European and Indian elites. Meanwhile, various preexisting local labor relationships such as begar, caste-based obligation, and debt bondage involved elements of coercion, control, and ownership that mirrored some of the characteristics of slavery. These underwent significant changes in the colonial period, as the colonial state both tapped into and sought to reshape the Indian labor market to suit the needs of the imperial capitalist economy.