The historiography of medieval India saw its most significant break in the 1920’s when W.H. Moreland published his three major works: India at the Death of Akbar, From Akbar to Aurangzeb, and the Agrarian System of Moslem India. Moreland had sought to understand the working of medieval, specially Mughal Indian economy in all its various aspects—the systems of agricultural and non-agricultural production, internal and external trade, patterns of social consumption, famines, size of population, revenue administration, standards of living of different social strata and so forth. For this vast project Moreland had at his disposal a rather narrow data base but an imaginative mind. He derived his information from the medieval court chronicles, the European travellers’ account of the seventeenth century and the records of the East India Companies. And if he used a great deal of imagination to extract meaning out of the most negligible bit of information, he nevertheless strictly followed the contours of the available evidence in developing his argument. If anything, his writing would appear a shade too puritanical compared, for example, with the verbosity of M. Habib’s 102-page ‘Introduction’ to the second volume of Elliot and Dowson’s History of India.
If Moreland made a major break in the more conventional dynastic historiography, his own focus was also to an extent conditioned by that historiography in that his vision remained stuck at the grand imperial plane. Undoubtedly, this was in a large measure owing to the nature of evidence he was using, especially the imperial court chronicles. It was thus that he looked at the whole arena of economic activity from the foot of the throne, as it were. He was in brief a ‘Mughalist’ par excellence.
Since the 1920’s, since Moreland’s works, a great many more details have been unearthed especially by Irfan Habib and a great deal of sympathy for the exploited medieval Indian peasant demonstrated in historical research, so much so that the grimness of the picture drawn of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries has come to indicate the measure of one’s commitment to progressive historiography. Several books and many more articles have appeared since Moreland’s day, each dealing with just one or another aspect of the totality that he had attempted to capture.
Yet, even where the details are more varied and the footnoting more uptodate, the parameters of the vision have remained ‘Mughalist’ in the strictly Moreland tradition. Shireen Mobsvi’s work is the most recent in that tradition, Quite a tribute to the man, six decades later!
There is however impressive methodological innovation in Moosvi’s book. In the main she has analysed the economy of the empire at one point of time (end of the sixteenth century) by deriving comparable generalization from the nineteenth century situations. Thus for example the study of agricultural productivity or prices and wages, etc.. The data of the sixteenth century are set against generalizations based on the nineteenth century data to see if sixteenth century generalizations are supportable. Of course it happens that generalizations about the sixteenth century arrived at earlier by Irfan Habib are almost invariably supported by the nineteenth century data and hence they are reiterated by Moosvi. Thus, after employing breathtaking statistical skills and comparing the data of the Ain with those of the nineteenth and early twentieth century, she concludes that slightly over half the land cultivated in 1909-10 was under the plough at the end of the sixteenth century—a point made by Habib in 1963; very impressive statistical exercise again lead her to place the tax burden on the peasant at about 60 per cent of the produce, a figure made familiar by Irfan Habib again in 1963 and more recently by R.P. Rana (‘Agrarian Revolts in Northern India during the late 17th and early 18th Century’, IESHR, 18,3-4, 1981, pp. 294-98).
There is, however, one serious historiographical (and ideological) implication of her research which needs sorting out. In seeking confirmation of the productivity of land in the sixteenth century from the data of the last quarter of the nineteenth century (in doing so she takes all possible precautions to establish comparability), Moosvi again and again comes to the conclusion that ‘between 1540-5 and c. 1870 the yields per acre remained practically the same in the case of the major food crops; if any change occurred it was barely marginal. On the whole, too, no great change is discernible in those cash crops for which we have evidence.’ She also assumes that the ‘rural consumption per capita was of the same size in 1601 as in 1901’ even though the population had risen from 145 millions in 1601 to 255 millions in 1872 and land holdings had been fragmented; however, the urban wage earners’ consumption levels declined by about a third.
But then surely the growing population could only mean extension of agriculture into marginal (at least less fertile) lands and therefore a fall in the average productivity, unless of course better technology had meanwhile raised the average soil fertility—a factor she does not consider. This combined with fragmentation of per capita holdings can hardly support Moosvi’s assumption that rural India was able to maintain the same per capita consumption levels in 1901 as in 1601. What’s more, if we accept this assumption then what happens to the notion of the debilitating effect of colonial exploitation as far as the rural economy is concerned? By her logic colonial rule should be the best thing that happened to the Indian countryside for under its aegis, population grew, productivity of land remained stable even when marginal land was brought under cultivation, and the consumption levels did not decline even when per capita holding was fragmented, what with all the exploitation that the alien rule unleashed!
Moosvi also believes that she would ‘not be far wrong in assuming a parity between the cost of labour and the value of raw material in manufactures as a whole.’ At this rate, the urban wage earners should have enjoyed enviable standards of living in medieval India and Moosvi almost says so on pp. 340-41. How do we then treat the explanation of the absence of rapid technological development in Mughal India in terms of the abundance of low-paid artisan labour which inhibited labour-saving devices—explanation offered by Irfan Habib (‘The Technology and Economy of Mughal India’, IESHR, 17,1,1980; and ‘Technology and Barriers to Technological Change in Mughal India’, IHR, V, 1-2, 1978-79)?
However, whenever Moosvi departs from the conventional historiography of Moreland and Irfan Habib and investigates new themes, she is both extremely interesting and enlightening. Thus her discussion of ‘The Distribution of Surplus among the Ruling Class’ and especially of the patterns of expenditure of this surplus is remarkably original and fascinating. The economy of words combined with an admirable precision of inferences makes hers a very elegant work, though the book is best read by the professional historian.
Harbans Mukhia is Professor of History, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi; author of Historians and Historiography During the Reign of Akbar, 1976 and Feudalism and Non-European Societies (ed), 1985.