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Perspectives on Medieval India

Rethinking a Millennium - Perspectives on Indian History from the Eighth to the Eighteenth Century - Essays for Harbans Mukhia edited by Rajat Datta;

november 29, 2008 EPW Economic & Political Weekly24book reviewPerspectives on Medieval IndiaKanakalatha MukundRethinking a Millennium – Perspectives on Indian History from the Eighth to the Eighteenth Century – Essays for Harbans Mukhiaedited by Rajat Datta; Delhi, Aakar Books, 2008; pp xi+385, Rs 795.This book, dedicated to Harbans Mukhia, comprises a collection of papers by 14 historians, who engage with the concerns and questions raised by him on understanding the dynamics of medieval India. It is a daunting task to even review a book which covers 1,000 years of Indian history. It is, perhaps not surprising therefore that inspite of Rajat Datta’s optimism that this long period also has its uses for giving new perspectives on Indian history, the book does not quite live up to expectations.Datta begins with a long introduction outlining the major issues in medieval Indian history as well as the contributions to the book, which I shall return to later. The first section (“Politics, Legitimacy and Political Culture”) begins with a paper by Dick Kolff which is basically structured around the observation that in India the legal system evolved independently of the State, whereas in Europe the State and the law jointly created “the phenomenon of a territorial rule of law”, with a clear demar-cation between the public and private spheres. In this abstract generalisation, it is not clear what Kolff means by “law”. It isclearly more than the satyam vada, dharmam chara (speak the truth, pursue righteousness) kind of moral and ethical injunctions laid down by the Dharmasas-tras. Though Kolff does acknowledge that the legal system in India evolved through negotiations and interactions between the brahmanical schools which developed thecode of laws, the rulers and society – personal laws, for instance, varied from region to region and community to com-munity – the main implication is that over 1,000 years India was an unchanging, homogeneous identity which I find both disconcerting and unacceptable.Daud Ali’s paper looks at “etiquette and comportment among elite societies” in medieval India. Body language, as he points out, is usually learned and internalised, which is codified into socially accepted and acceptable behaviour. Ali discusses the significance of gestures (anjali) and postures (prostration) and, in particular, the symbolism of the feet of the patron/lord/king offering refuge and protection. While this may not be new to most Indian readers, his discussion on the depiction of kings in many sculptures and coins in graceful repose (lalitasana), indicating effortless power is extremely interesting.Richard Eaton re-examines the widely held notion that the Battle of Talikota rep-resented the clash of two civilisations and the end of a glorious Hindu kingdom. He argues that Ramaraya did not consider himself, nor was he perceived by his sub-jects, as a “Hindu” king. Ramaraya was primarily obsessed with claiming himself the conqueror of the Chalukyan capital of Kalyana, and to achieve this, his rule was spent in aligning Vijayanagara with one or the other Bahmani sultanates to fight yet another Bahmani kingdom, until the ulti-mate tragedy when the latter all united against Ramaraya as the common enemy. Continuing on the theme of the Battle of Talikota, Sumit Guha turns to a literary work (Bakhar) in Marathi which gives an account of the events leading to the battle. He gives an extensive translation of a part of this work, but points out that this was written nearly a century after the battle, while historians in the last century, eager to use indigenous sources, anachronisti-cally treated this as a contemporary ac-count of the battle. Guha’s main point is that when literary works are treated as historical sources, it is most important to place the text in context. This short con-clusion comes as an anticlimax, since the introduction leads us to expect more analytical insights. Religious IdentitiesThe first section ends with a short paper by Stephen Blake on the Persian New Year, nau ruz, which is celebrated on 21 March, the vernal equinox. Akbar decided in the 1570s to celebrate nau ruz in an elaborate ceremony, partly to integrate diverse cul-tural and religious practices, partly since this date could be taken, conveniently, to mark the anniversary of his accession to the throne, and partly to introduce a solar year, which would also serve as an effective administrative measure to enable more efficient tax collection. The second section deals primarily with identity and cross-cul-tural influences. The question of identity, especially religious identities, has assumed great immediacy in recent times in view of the emergence of extremist religious groups. In medieval India,where an emerging Muslim state with a ruling class with no lo-cal roots had sovereignty over a large, in-digenous Hindu population, the issue of the confrontation between Hindu and Muslim identities took on great importance. Sunil Kumar argues that though “Hindu” and “Muslim” are conventionally thought of as monolithic communities, the Muslim com-munity in fact was fractured along many lines. The expulsion of Sufi Shaykhs from Delhi during the rule of Iltutmish in the early 13th century was only a manifesta-tion of these internal tensions, which arose out of several factors. Healso notes that the sultanate could not follow strict religious dogma on dealing with non-believers since the realities of ruling over the majority non-Muslim subjects meant that religious pre-scriptions had to be moderated by prag-matic considerations of administrative ex-pediency. While this wealth of detail would be of interest to studentsof the history of Islam in India, it must be remembered that identity is defined with respect to a particular reference group. Thus, though theMuslim community (or for that matter the Hindu community) was not monolithic or undifferentiated, it does not take away from the reality that, when confronted by a clearly defined “other”, religion does be-cometheparamount marker of identity.
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BOOK REVIEWnovember 29, 2008 EPW Economic & Political Weekly26Ecology as Constraint on British RuleRohan D’SouzaBecoming India is set in a provocative tone. The contention is that writing on Indian history has failed to grasp the disconnect between historical unity and geographical space. That is, India has, thus far, been imagined as a “given” geography rather than one that has been assembled as a troubled composite of diverse ecologies and contrasting cultural environments. The British colonial project in the Indian sub-continent, hence, did not play out in a one-dimensional physical setting but was realised unevenly in variegated spatial and temporal contexts. In the words of the author, “agri-cultural communities” settled along the rivers and flood plains have been “accepted as the representative and sociologically normative for India” (p 300), while large parts ofthe British Indian empire in actual fact comprised “border zones” – mountainous areas, hilly, forested and desert tracts. The experiences of these border zones, the author argues, therefore, should not be simply treated as “derivative histories” of the “civilisational centres” in the great Indian flood plains but instead can be studied from a “historiographically independent position”. Having thereby pressed for a drastic con-ceptual retooling, Becoming India pursues a triptych style discussion of the western Himalayan region in India (Himachal Pradesh): exploring and unpacking aspects of the region’s pre-British social formation, the colonial period and the immediate dec-ades after India’s independence (in particu-lar the area lying mostly in the erstwhile Bushahr state in the Sutlej valley). These hard details of the social, political and eco-nomic, however, are kept under the con-stant shadow of the overwhelming pres-ence of the Himalaya’s peculiar and specific environment: the gentle valleys, low slopes, sharp drainage, ridges, mountain tops, roaring river torrents, dense forests and immeasurable pastures. Mountain environ-ments, in other words, as the author repeat-edly reminds us, were not passive back-drops to the fast and furious pace of history but served simultaneously as a constraint as much as they offered possibilities. For the pre-British phase, the reader is informed, the social and political arrange-ment was a heterogeneous one of multiple and criss-crossing power centres compris-ing clans, local lords, rajas and religious authorities. A picture that (at least for the British) was further complicated by the absence of any exclusive or singular owner-ship to land or other productive resources. In effect, the social and the political was interwoven into an economic kaleidoscope; a myriad and confusing maze of rights, duties, obligations and overlapping claims that were implicated in different measures of subsistence cultivation, pastoralism, minor trade and forest-based livelihoods. This complex intertwining and interweaving of the natural and social, not unsurprisingly, as the author points out, appeared largely illegible to the early British colonialists. The process of colonial penetration into the western Himalayas, nevertheless, though at a gingerly and relatively slower pace, gained some traction only in the middle decades of the 19th century. The colonial imperative, here, was sought to be made manifest through the attempted transformation of forests into commodities, the introduction of the money economy, the imposition of land revenue and the creation of colonial hill stations or town-ships. For the author, the resultant changes, often brought on in uneven doses and spurts, acted to alter the previous multi-polar nature of power in the pre-British social formation into an imbalanced polit-ical tripod. On one foot, the colonial state further empowered the hill rajas against their peasants. This they achieved by treating the rajas of the hill states as ex-clusive owners of the surrounding forests. quite advanced, it was clear that the use of machinery was limited to very primitive implements. The lack of motivation to shift to productivity enhancing tools indicates a situation of surplus labour, when produc-tion could be increased by employing more workers. This was stressed by Om Prakash who has argued that the greatly increased demand for textiles by the Europeans after the 17th century could be met only because of the fuller employment of underem-ployed factors of production. This point also affects Prasannan Parthasarathi’s argu-ment (in the last paper inthis volume) that it would be inappropriate to apply capitalism as a historical category to understand the processes of economic change in India, since the economic pre-conditions were entirely different. In particular, he states that India had a shortage of labour, while Europe had surplus labour. While it is true that the land-labour ratio was quite favourable in pre-colonial India, there is little indication of labour shortage in craft production un-til well into the 18th century. Two papers deal with agriculture. Dilbagh Singh explores peasant resistance in rural Rajasthan to the demands of state revenue. In fact, as he points out, payment of taxes was resisted by all classes in rural society who all colluded in evading taxes. Ujjayan Bhattacharya’s paper on revenue farming in Bengal under the East India Company after the 1750s, comments on a number of families (like the Ghoshals of Calcutta) involved in commercial ventures with the English who began to take up revenue farm-ing inorder to enhance their social status. Datta’s “Introduction” is a masterly blend, outlining important issues in medieval history, and synthesising this heterogene-ous collection of papers into a composite whole. He ends with a brief account of Mukhia’s academic contribution to our un-derstanding of medieval history. Given the wide range of topics addressed in the contributions, it would be inappropriate to make a generalised comment on the merits of this book. If the individual paperswould provoke more questions to be raised and inspire further research on medieval India, that would be a fitting tribute to Mukhia.Email: Becoming India: Western Himalayas Under British RulebyAniket Alam (New Delhi: Foundation Books, Cambridge University Press), 2008; pp iii-334, Rs 750.

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