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.
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.
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 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.