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 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.