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Contemporary Perspectives on Labor History in India  

Chitra Joshi

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 Emergence of Marketing in 20th-Century India  

Douglas E. Haynes and Tirthankar Roy

Business historians of colonial and postcolonial South Asia have not sufficiently studied internal trade and commercial institutions, a glaring omission considering that trade was one of the fastest-growing economic activities during the 20th century. While the historiography of the merchant has grown steadily, it remains focused on international trade or on non-economic issues like the relationship between ethnicity and commerce. One area that clearly requires more research is marketing. The involvement of producing firms in marketing activities, like sales and advertising, became much more extensive during the late 19th and the 20th centuries. Significant changes in the costs of transportation and communications made these tasks easier. Producers of goods, however, possessed imperfect information and needed to rely on intermediate figures—either various kinds of local actors or marketing “experts” who claimed local knowledge—to reach consumers. Sales and advertising in postcolonial India built on the legacy of this transformation in colonial India, rather than breaking sharply from it, even as technological change enabled more direct communication between the producer and the consumer.


Humanitarian Aid and Development Assistance in Afghanistan since 1979  

Jennifer L. Fluri and Rachel Lehr

Afghanistan has been on the receiving end of uneven development aid and humanitarian assistance since the early days of the Cold War. Since the onset of war in 1979, a lack of strategic planning has contributed to poorly coordinated and irregularly implemented relief and development aid only worsened by proxy wars of competing empires and the capriciousness of donor governments. Armed conflict, whether between empires or regional and local actors, has been a consistent challenge. The intent of humanitarian assistance is to alleviate suffering and save lives in times of crisis, political or environmental. It is by design reactive, limited in duration and reach. The humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan has required relief and assistance over a long rather than limited time period. Humanitarian aid worldwide is mostly coordinated through UN agencies and implemented by local affiliates or partners. Development aid is designed to address structural issues in a country in order to improve lives and livelihoods, through improvement programs for infrastructure and economies. Institutional and political reform are part of development aid, often conceived in accordance with the political systems and to meet the goals and interests of donor countries. In Afghanistan, in the past twenty years the problems relating to the distribution of massive amounts of donor funding, the coordination and implementation between local and international Non-Governmental Organizations, the role of the United Nations, and the international military forces, have all hampered success across spatial scales. From 1979 to 1992 humanitarian assistance was also delivered in response to the political goals of donors—in the proxy war between the US and Soviet empires—and from 2001 to 2021 as a primary target of the US-led Global War on Terror. Relief and aid have always suffered from top-down administration, allocation decisions made at the donors’ political whims, decisions about programs and budgets taken at headquarters, or implementation in the field where reality does not meet expectations.


India’s Merchant Communities  

Medha Kudaisya

Merchant communities have dominated the Indian commercial landscape for centuries. These groups span different religions and regions across the country, and even beyond. They include the Marwaris, Banias, and Khatris in the north, the Chettiars and Komatis in south India; the Jains, Sindhis, Parsis, and the Bohras, Memons, and Khojas in the western parts of the subcontinent. While business activity was not restricted to these groups, they dominated it until at least the mid-20th century. These mercantile communities underwent a constant process of evolution in response to changing political and economic developments. They were not homogenous groups either and were divided internally by subcaste, region, religious affiliation, and language. Yet, they found it advantageous to function collectively and formed community organizations, which facilitated their economic interests. These communities played an important role in the 16th century in integrating India in the new trading networks, thereby helping in the making of a world economy. By the mid-19th century, many among them made the transition to industrial activity. These communities dominated commerce and industry till the late 1960s and 1970s, when new groups began to emerge.


Indigo in Precolonial South Asia  

Ghulam A. Nadri

South Asia is the home of natural blue dye extracted from the indigo plant species indigofera tinctoria. Its production for commercial purposes began very early and peaked during the early modern period. Growing Asian and European demand for indigo in the 16th and early 17th centuries raised its status as a major commodity in Asian and Eurasian trade. Indigo production in South Asia increased, and Indian and other Asian merchants exported large quantities of it to West Asia from where some of it was re-exported to Europe via the Levantine trade of the eastern Mediterranean. From the mid-16th century, the Portuguese Estado da India exported large quantities of indigo to Lisbon. By the early 1600s, when the English and Dutch East India companies began trading with India, indigo had become a highly sought-after commodity in the markets of England and the Dutch Republic. Consequently, the English East India Company (EIC) and Verenigde Oost-indische Compagnie (Dutch East India Company or VOC) exported large quantities of it to Europe in the first half of the 17th century. With the rise of new indigo commodity chains in Europe’s transatlantic colonies, such as Guatemala, Jamaica, South Carolina, and Saint-Domingue, exports from South Asia declined. However, there was a substantial local demand, which kept the industry going well up to the end of the 18th century when indigo production would expand on an unprecedented scale in Bengal and some other parts of colonial India.


Infrastructure, Circulation, and Ecology in the Maldives  

Luke Heslop and Lubna Hawwa

In the Maldives, interconnected human and ecological systems of circulation both sustain and corrode social, cultural, and environmental life. Therefore, a focus on infrastructure in the Maldives requires conceptualizing infrastructure as an assemblage of more-than-human networks and interactions. As well as being a known category of public good, infrastructure in the Maldives is also experienced as an accumulation of networks and meeting points between the ecological and subaquatic world, and the world dreamed of, designed by, and built by people. Infrastructure encompasses the relationship between the islands in the Maldives, island inhabitants, the sea, networks of people, and the movement of people through the islands over time. In taking such an approach, attention must be paid to the significance of the ocean and its reefs as unruly infrastructures that shape the permissibility of life on the archipelago.


Inland Trade in the Mughal Empire  

Shalin Jain

The Mughal rule had manifold implications in all spheres of life in India, including the economic one. During the peak period of imperial power (17th century), inland trade underwent a transformation in volume, commodities, and organization. The historiography of inland trade has seen various shifts in the last four decades. The initial views of an autocratic state have been overtaken by new research recognizing the state’s role in facilitating trade in alliance with nobility and other elite groups. The autonomous function of trading activities and merchant groups is now widely acknowledged. Authoritative attitudes and attempts at extraction did sometimes impinge on the expansion of trade and commerce, but subject to that qualification, individual action had agency. The pattern of local, regional, and inter-regional trade being facilitated by urbanization, goods transport, and other related services shows that commercial transactions in the commodities of daily use, as well as luxurious items, were constantly increasing. Here goes a narrative history, a tour of the historiography, and a discussion about the communities engaged in commercial transactions.


Origins of a Modern Indian Capitalist Class in Bombay  

Kate Boehme

In India, as in much of the world, the 19th century witnessed the emergence of urban capitalist classes, effected by the rapid growth of global mercantile capitalism and, later, industrial manufacturing. As a colonial city, Bombay—like its eastern counterpart, Calcutta—developed two connected, but distinct business communities: one, a European community with foreign, imperial connections, and the other, an Indian community with roots in long-standing regional networks. In Bombay, the latter took the form of a class known as the “Merchant Princes,” who capitalized on long-standing commercial traditions in western India and their ability to command both Indian and colonial networks to establish themselves as commercial powerhouses. These commercial networks and patterns of behavior, established before the arrival of the British, had an indelible impact on the character of Indian business in colonial Bombay. The business community brought such traditions with them when they migrated to Bombay at the end of the 18th century and used them to build the famous mercantile firms of the early 19th century. The Indian business elite likewise built collaborative links within their own community to expand their business interests; when barriers erected by the colonial establishment sought to limit their expansion, Indian businessmen used the resources at their disposal (both in the Indian hinterland and within the city itself) to circumvent them. Class identity similarly began to emerge as they cooperatively campaigned for particular agendas, intended to improve the fortunes of the entire community. They fought for greater influence in the Bombay government—in line with the wealth they then commanded—and used their financial resources to mold the physical and intellectual landscape of the city in their favor.


Origins of British India  

Tirthankar Roy

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.


Parsi Traders in Western India, 1600–1900  

Lakshmi Subramanian

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.


Partition and the Reorganization of Commercial Networks  

Rinchan Ali Mirza

The Partition of British India represents one of the largest episodes of involuntary mass migration in recorded history—an estimated 17 million people were displaced because of the event. Among the many changes that resulted from the Partition was the substantive untangling of the business architecture that had developed under the colonial regime. A central feature of the untangling was the separation of the extensive commodity trade network that had developed in areas that went to Pakistan from its agro-processing base that was inherited by areas that became part of post-independence India. The implications of such a restructuring of the business architecture were particularly relevant for Pakistan, which started off with a severe imbalance between its commodity trade and industrial sectors, the former of which was at a much more advanced stage than the latter. The rudimentary industrial base from which Pakistan started off in turn fostered a greater reliance of the state on the private capital of a small business elite when it came to promoting industrial growth. It is the changing dynamics of just such a relationship between the state and a small close knit business elite that has characterized the post-Partition business history of the country.


The Portuguese Estado da Índia (Empire in Asia)  

Zoltán Biedermann

The origins of the Portuguese Estado da Índia—the sum of all Portuguese Crown possessions east of the Cape of Good Hope—can be traced back to the late 1400s, most importantly to the inaugural voyage of Vasco da Gama from Lisbon to Calicut (Kozhikode) in 1497–1498. After some initial hesitations, the Portuguese Crown created a governorship for India in 1505, with a seat at Cochin (Kochi) later transferred to Goa, to oversee commercial, military, administrative, and other activities in an increasing number of possessions along the shores of East Africa and Maritime Asia. Portuguese trading posts (feitorias), forts, and fortified towns across the region resulted from conquest or, more frequently, from negotiated agreements with local rulers, on whose cooperation the Portuguese generally relied. The Estado reached its apex in the second half of the 16th century, drawing vast resources from trade around the Cape and within Asian and African waters, while investing increasingly in military and religious campaigns in a variety of regions from southeastern Africa to the Moluccas (Malukus) and Japan. Despite significant losses to the Dutch East India Company (VOC) and the English East India Company (EIC) during the 17th century, the Estado survived until the 20th century. Goa became a part of the Indian Union in 1961, and Macao integrated into the People’s Republic of China in 1999. The perceived decadence of the Estado during much of its history is at odds with its longevity and has prompted longstanding debates about the nature of Portuguese power in Asia; its reliance on trade, military might, and imperial ideas; and its intertwinement with Asian polities and societies.


Poverty in South Asia: An Intellectual History  

Shailaja Fennell

The Oxford English Dictionary defines poverty as “destitution” with respect to lack of wealth and material possessions. It denotes a condition where an individual has inadequate resources and earnings to afford those necessities they require in order to stay alive and well. This condition can stem from extraneous shocks, such as the death of the head of the household or a poor harvest, or can result from systematic factors like power relations or institutions that have, since ancient times, kept some groups in society in precarious conditions. Descriptions of poverty are plentiful in ancient and medieval texts, which tend to characterize poverty with regard to natural, cultural, and personal features. In sharp contrast, the emergence of poverty as a public policy concern did not become evident until the latter part of the 19th century. It is also noteworthy that the means of measuring poverty that began to emerge in 19th and early 20th centuries identified poverty as a cultural or individual trait, rather than as a consequence of legal or administrative policy making. These latter day quantitative methods of measurement also provide the earliest evidence base for the design of public policies for poverty alleviation and advancing human development.


Railroads and Trade in 19th-Century India  

Michael Kuehlwein

In the latter half of the 19th century, India built the fifth-largest railway system in the world. At the same time, domestic and foreign trade grew rapidly. By the turn of the century, India was the largest exporter in Asia and the ninth largest in the world. The growth in railways played a critical role in that expansion of trade. This growth is highly correlated with several trade-related phenomena, including lower temporal price variability, increased market integration, and falling spatial price dispersion. Measuring the rail’s precise impact though is challenging, because many other relevant factors were changing too, at home and abroad. Trying to control for some of them seems to bring estimates of the contribution of railways to trade down to more modest levels. Additional research is needed to better understand this relationship. Fortunately, there is extensive data on railways, trade, prices, and production. More data are being discovered and assembled. Some of the estimation has become quite sophisticated. Endogeneity issues are being addressed. There has been a greater focus on controlling for other variables to demonstrate causality. Many hypotheses have yet to be tested. This is a rich area for future work.