Angma D. Jhala
Colonial South Asian history has focused on British India and the nationalists who later resisted and supplanted it. However, long before India’s independence from Britain, there were regions where neither the British nor the nationalists were primarily positioned. These were the approximately six hundred semi-autonomous kingdoms, or “princely states” (often referred to as “Indian India”), which spanned the breadth and length of the subcontinent. They comprised two-fifths of the landmass and one-third of the population, excluding Burma. Though their rulers were long marginalized in modern South Asian and imperial history as antiquated relics of the medieval era, oriental despots, or puppet princes, they were real forces in the governing of the subcontinent, not only during the precolonial era but also at the heyday of the British Empire and continue to play a part in modern South Asia. Native rulers introduced new systems of administration, taxation, law, religious and social reform, trade, education, public health, and technology, including railways, ginning factories, and telegraphs, to their states; served as patrons of architecture, the arts, culinary innovation, and sport; encouraged the introduction of representative forms of government; and, in certain cases, supported popular anticolonial movements. In some principalities, where ruling families practiced different faiths from the majority of their citizens, their policies would influence the political trajectories of their erstwhile states long after the end of colonialism. With India’s independence and Partition in 1947, the princely states merged with the new nations of South Asia, and in the 1970s former princes lost their economic entitlement of the Privy Purse. However, they continued to play a part in postcolonial South Asia, serving as diplomats, governors, patrons of educational and charitable institutions, local magnates, company directors, cabinet ministers and, perhaps most prominently, as elected politicians and leaders of heritage tourism.
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 Marathas, now sometimes called “Maharashtrians,” are an Indic people, speakers of the Marathi language. The boundaries of the modern Indian state of Maharashtra were drawn so as to include all majority Marathi-speaking areas. The Marathi language emerged a thousand years ago, but the Maratha Empire took shape only after 1674. Its leaders contended with the Mughal Empire and contributed to its downfall. They created a loosely knit but dynamic political system that grew within the frame of Mughal imperial power while reducing it to a shadow of its former self. Maratha governors ruled the great cities of Agra and Delhi, and it was from them that the British wrested control of north India in 1803–1806. The residual Maratha states still put up a fierce resistance before succumbing to the new British Empire in 1818.
British historians wrote the first draft of Indian history. The English public was uninterested in the Marathas. The Mughal dynasty and the older states of Rajasthan received far more favorable attention. The historical narrative that the British rescued India from chaos also required a depiction of the Marathas as predatory sources of disorder. This representation has resulted in minimizing the commercial dynamism and flexibility of Maratha administration. Maratha taxation was far from destructive. It operated within a dynamic political economy. While periodically affected (as Indian governments had long been) by climatic catastrophe or political breakdown, this economy could recuperate quickly in better times. The Maratha Empire also represented a unique identification between a people and an empire. Ordinary Maharashtrian farmers served in its armies, were proud of its political achievements, and identified with the Maratha patria. The empire was also marked by a continuity with the symmetrical patterns of kinship and marriage customary in Maharashtra. While sons of secondary wives could rise to high positions in the lineage, primary marriages continued to be with women of status. Affinal relatives were recognized and played a large role in governance. Also, unlike the Mughal Empire, the Marathas used their own language wherever they ruled, enriching and elaborating it all the while. This prefigured the rise of linguistic nationalisms more generally in India under British rule.
Modern science and technology (S&T) has been present in India almost as long as it has anywhere else in the world. But the nature of its blossoming in India was substantially different, due to the huge (if not sole) role played by India’s colonial experience—especially the British colonial rule. The colonial state used modern S&T in practical and ideological ways to control the territory and its resources, and to keep colonial subjects in awe and submission. Correspondingly, the local intelligentsia’s interest in science was marked by ideological and instrumental concerns. The compulsions of colonialism did not allow for an easy flow of knowledge and expertise. Yet, with limited openings in education and scientific professions, Indians were able to acquire a measure of proficiency that could even lead to a Nobel Prize. The engagement, however, was not marked by one-way diffusion and passive acceptance, but by active appropriation and redefinition according to local imperatives. There was also an active critique of modern S&T—especially in its “big” forms and violent faces. After independence, the new nation state opted for a path of massive development of industry and agriculture through deployment of modern S&T, whereby world-class institutions, infrastructure industries, and research laboratories were opened in different parts of the country. While these have produced remarkable results, the meeting of science and state has led to stark ironies and difficulties. Also, continuing critiques of the authority of modern S&T, the undesirable economic, social, and ecological effects produced by it, and the renewed interest in “traditional alternatives” pose serious challenges to any uncontested or triumphalist march of modern S&T in India.
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.
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.
The 19th century in India, and especially the last quarter, was a period in the development of what were to become India’s major new religious movements, with lasting significance into the century that followed, within India and beyond. Essential to these movements was the notion of social “reform” and its associated idea of religious revival. These twin concepts involved a range of debates about existing religious traditions for Hindus, Muslims, and Sikhs, the need to adapt them to social and political transformations, ideas about the “modern,” and institution building around education and social work. The very concept of community identity also underwent change, with the establishment, for example, of the idea of “Hinduism” as a world religion. The three main contexts to these debates were the formalization of the colonial state, the development of the socio-religious institution, and the impact of anti-colonial nationalism. The nature of colonial power in India shifted from trade expansion and conquest, to formal crown colony control over the course of the 19th century, and this had a profound impact on the nature of religious movements, ideas about reform, and social change. India’s main religious traditions confronted an array of challenges: direct, in the form of missionaries, and indirect, in the shape of new social and political ideas. Partly in response to these changes, an array of ideologues built new organizations that reshaped the institutional landscape of India. Finally many of the leaders and intellectual influences of these organizations became pivotal to debates about national belonging and political representation as the century came to a close.
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.