What if India had not become a British Colony?
Nothing could dim the beauty of outline and colour of the Diwan-i-Khas, but the descendant of the Great Akbar and the victorious Aurangzeb, was found, an object of pity, blind and aged, stripped of authority and reduced to poverty, seated under a small tattered canopy, the fragment of royal state and the mockery of human pride.
It has become a cliché that British imperialism in India distorted its social structure and inhibited the autonomous development of its economy. In other words, had India not become a colony of Britain it would have made social and economic progress on its own. Well, Karl Marx thought that the British penetration into India will instigate the process of capitalist development. Without it the ‘Asiatic Mode of Production’ would have kept India frozen in a pre-capitalist state. Marx did not see in the pre-feudal despotism of India the dialectics necessary for progress. Marx did not, however, give us a good explanation of his thesis. The Neo-Marxists and nationalists, unlike Marx, claim that the social and economic conditions of India before the arrival of the Western powers on its shores were on the cusp of capitalist development. The British colonial rule distorted if not halted that autonomous socio-economic progress.
In this essay I argue that the social and economic conditions of India were not propitious for progress. In fact, until the mid-nineteenth century India had never been a united political entity: it had dynastic (local or foreign) rulers in control of its parts. When the Portuguese landed on the western shores of India in the late fifteenth century only the northern parts of India were in control of an Afghan dynasty; the rest was in the hands of mostly Hindu regional rulers. Even after the arrival of the Mughals in 1526, their rule in the next two hundred years did not cover the entire territory of India. Aurangzeb spent nearly two decades (1689–1707) in the Deccan and died there in his unwise struggle to conquer the southern parts of the sub-continent. Interestingly, the Mughals had developed no naval capacity to confront the invaders from the sea. Thousands of miles of the Indian shoreline remained unprotected, certainly against the navies of the Western countries.
From the death of Aurangzeb in 1707 to the accession of Mohammad Shah as emperor in 1719, the turmoil, disorder and instability created by the wars of succession and regional revolts had their destructive impact on every part of the empire. In the wars alone, at least two sons, eight grandsons and one great grandson of Aurangzeb and many more relatives and nobles were killed. The administrative authority of the governors, diwans (ministers), faujdars (military governors or police officers), bakhshis (paymaster generals), and jagirdars (holders of jagirs or land grants) were diluted and blurred. Imperial orders were either ignored or not effectively executed. Information (secret news reports) declined in quality and frequency. The zabt (imperial) land revenue system transformed into revenue farming. Jagirdars assumed full military and police powers over their holdings to collect revenue; tax collections became erratic and diminished. Zamindars (landholders) and peasants rebelled, and the level of violence increased everywhere. The weakened central authority created opportunities for officers in the provinces. The provincial governors strengthened their powers while paying lip service to the emperor and his authority. Proto-dynastic figures established nascent regional kingdoms in several provinces.
In the 1720s, had there been a charismatic and strong Mughal ruler, the descent of the empire could have been halted or even reversed. In the long reign of Mohammad Shah (1719–1748), the empire broke up into several successor ministates. In some of these states, like Bengal, Awadh and Hyderabad, the Mughal nobles established their autonomous rule, and in other areas, Marathas, Rajputs, Afghans, Jats, and Sikhs laid their claims. The European trading companies, especially of Britain, France, and the Netherlands — the Dutch had moved on to Indonesia and Ceylon (Sri Lanka) — got gradually involved in the regional rivalries and combats, reflecting the divisions in Europe and the attraction of resources and territory of India. The Mughal empire ‘became a mere shell empty of puissance;’ its condition was of ‘a carcass inviting the birds of prey.’ The administration became a mere pretence that cloaked the rapine, pillage, and the marches and countermarches of armies of one power against another.
The seeds of its destruction were inside the Mughal empire itself. First, there was a fierce competition for succession: after Akbar — though his son Jahangir had briefly rebelled against him — transfer of power was rarely peaceful or smooth. Second, the emperor relied on bands of mercenaries whose major interest was in the loot, jagirs (land grants) and mansabs (civil and military ranks). The jagirs and mansabs were neither permanent for the individual nor hereditary. Farming for revenue became the major aim: extracting surplus without regard to the well-being of the peasants and zamindars and the fertility of land. Third, there were multiple taxes on land and trade. Besides there were taxes on Hindus: jizya (tax on the non-Muslims) on the well-to-do individuals and taxes on pilgrims. Fourth, the Mughal nobility was quite diverse and rife with ethnic and religious rivalries. Finally, the ideology and temperament of emperors were no less important: compare Akbar’s shrewd secularism and tolerance with Aurangzeb’s religious bigotry and paranoia; and compare the personalities of Babur, Akbar, and Aurangzeb with those of the later Mughals.
The Mughal rulers had continued to expand and deepen their control in India from 1556 when Akbar ascended the throne to 1689 when Aurangzeb went into the Deccan. In 1689 the empire stretched from Kabul in the north-west, covered all of Punjab, Sindh, and Kashmir to the east up to the end of Bengal and in the Peninsula up to the River Kaveri. The empire’s governors and commanders directly administered most of the area; a small area was under the tributary chiefs and rajahs (Hindu rulers of principalities) who accepted the over-lordship of the Mughal monarch. However, the Western ghats (Maharashtra) became a contested region, thanks to the insurgent Marathas against Aurangzeb. Aurangzeb’s prolonged engagement in the Deccan wars was an important factor eventually in the fall of the Mughal empire.
The Mughal empire was a highly centralised state, at the core of which was its army. Its administrative structure and institutions reflected the central position of the emperor. He was backed by his amirs (nobles) and mansabdars (holders of civil and military ranks), who represented the civilian and military arms of the state — which meant the monarch. Its fiscal resources were generated by loot in the process of conquest and by the tax on land cultivated by peasants and on the inland trade; they were supplemented by tributes, gifts, indemnities, and sundry charges. Revenue from land was the largest contributor. The pre-Mughal Afghans and the Mughals had developed a complex but effective revenue system that extracted one-third to one-half of the produce from land. A substantial proportion of the revenue was used to maintain and mobilise the army and the civil bureaucracy, followed by the imperial household; the residual was used for public works (e.g., sarais, roads and canals), charities and grants.
Let us look at India’s social and economic conditions in the Mughal period. During the long Mughal rule, the Hindu and Muslim cultures did not change by much: they remained insulated from each other even after centuries of co-existence. They did influence each other but only superficially. The problem was the division of the ruling class (Muslims) and the subject class (Hindus). Hindus accommodated and passively adjusted, and Muslims were equally unresponsive treating Hindu culture with disdain and not worth serious attention. The mood was of glum co-existence, but there were exceptions. The Muslim attitude towards Hindus was not only because of the arrogance of power but also because the Hindu civilisation was in a dismal state. Intellectually, obscurantist pundits (Hindu priests) and mullas (Muslim clergy) led the two societies.
The main characteristics of the social structure, divisions based on religion, ethnicity, and caste, did not alter by much if at all during the Mughal rule. The sharpest division was between Muslims and Hindus in faith, traditions, and customs. Hindus did not much impress the Muslims, divided though the latter were by ethnicity, sect, and class. The Hindu-Muslim divide was not as sharp among the elite as it was among the ordinary people: they co-existed without much sympathy for each other’s traditions and customs. A vast majority of their religious guides emphasised the importance of division. Akbar and a few others among the Mughal elite tried to bridge the gulf, but others undermined these attempts. So, the Hindu-Muslim divide remained frozen. Hindu society itself was highly fractured into varnas (castes) and jatis (sub-castes) because of the age-old caste system. There was powerful resistance against every attempt to reduce the caste differences. It is also true that, though there were exceptions, the society and economy created few opportunities for upward mobility. It was not a career-oriented society: birth and customs defined one’s status in the community since there was little education and few avenues to change one’s place in the society. Only a minority was able to get to positions of influence and power by talent or sword.
In the pyramid of power and influence, women were at the bottom in both the private and public spheres. Very few women acquired recognition or status in the public sphere among the Muslims and Hindus alike. In the private sphere too, men retained a dominant position no matter whether the household was of the elite or the commoners. The Muslim rulers did not touch the traditional Hindu customs of female infanticide, child marriage, and sati. Similarly, among Muslims, strict segregation of sexes and the inferior status of women were unchanged. However, some customs were transferred across religious lines, e.g., the custom of dowry at marriage among Hindus was adopted by Muslims and the custom of purdah (seclusion from unrelated men or behind the veil) among Muslim women was adopted by Hindu women. The practice of polygamy was not uncommon among the Muslim elite, a practice also adopted by the Hindu elite, especially by the Rajput and Jat chiefs and nobles. Reliance on superstition, astrology and visits to the living and dead saints were quite common among both Hindus and Muslims, more so among women of both religions. But there was an enormous difference between women of the elite and the ordinary classes: the former could afford a life of comfort and luxury without much or any labour and the latter laboured most of their lives and achieved almost no comfort.
Another important aspect of life in the Mughal empire, and in the successor states following its disintegration, was that the rulers showed little or no interest in any knowledge (say of science and technology) beyond the boundaries of the Hindu and Muslim religious traditions. The educational system, if we can all it by that name, among both Hindus and Muslim was quite similar: It was available to mostly boys from the upper crust of society; private tutors were the major source of learning; the curriculum focused on traditional texts (scriptures) and speculation; and the pedagogic method involved rote and rod. The Muslim schools (madrassah and maktab) and the Hindu schools (pathshala and gurukala) were unlike the schools and universities in the West. The Hindu learning was ossified in a dead language (Sanskrit). And the Muslim learning was restricted to religion and the Urdu and Persian literature. No new knowledge outside the defined disciplines, mostly theology and literature, was allowed to pollute the Indian minds. It is fair to say that there was no progress in any sphere of learning in the Mughal period. Most people remained strangers to literacy and numeracy. And the few who went to a school, or were tutored at home, remained unfamiliar with the rapidly expanding knowledge of science, technology, and the arts in Europe.
It is only fair to highlight some features of the Indian culture during the Mughal period. The Mughal emperors, except Aurangzeb, were keen patrons of music, dance, paintings, and builders of palaces, tombs, mosques, forts, pavilions, and gardens. Music and dance were valued at the Mughal court: the rulers and their courtiers were extravagantly generous to the Hindu and Muslim musicians and dancers. The Mughal monuments and gardens combined the Indian and Persian traditions and styles. In painting, the Mughals concentrated on abstract art and calligraphy. The miniatures were of such high quality that some of the leading painters in Europe collected them. The emperors were patrons of learning, especially in Persian and Urdu, but they also promoted the use of Hindi and several regional languages. However, the literary output was like a spray on a vast desert of illiteracy. Books were handwritten until the introduction of printing in the late eighteenth century. The Mughal rulers provided reasonably generous support, in the form of endowments and grants, to Muslim institutions and some of the Hindus as well. Most of this support, however, was at the rulers’ pleasure: any suspicion of dissent or disloyalty could end the support abruptly.
The economy of India in the Mughal times remained dependent on land and its products. Land was the most important source of production and the state revenue. Most of the industry was based on processing and manufacturing of raw material produced by peasants and material (mineral) extracted from the ground. There was substantial growth of finance and markets for internal and external trade. But there were no banks and limited companies. Peasants cultivated a variety of grains and cash crops, depending on climate, soil, and markets. Production was done on small scale with little capital and a stagnant technology. All of farming depended on rains since little investment was made in surface irrigation. The problem was that peasants had to meet the demand of the state for revenue in cash, one-third of net income in Akbar’s time rising to one-half by the time of Shahjahan. In practice most peasants had to pay most of what their labour produced, leaving them in poverty and misery. Locusts, droughts, wars, pillage, and plunder only added to their misery. The demand of revenue by the state in cash worked both ways: it helped develop markets and finance but also made the peasant vulnerable to price instability and market intermediaries.
The Mughal mansabdari (jagirdari) system — assignment of land revenue for imperial services instead of salaries or cash payment — worked against the interest of peasants and cultivation of land. It became even more so with the growth of revenue farming and the dilution of mansabs. The mansabdars, and the revenue farmers used by them, had little interest in the productivity of land or in the well-being of peasants. Similarly, the primary interest of the state (emperor) was to maximise the revenue yield, which it tried to do by extending the area under cultivation and increasing the revenue rate. The growth of exports of pepper, cotton and its products, indigo, and silk to Europe and parts of East Asia, thanks to the Dutch and British trading companies, brought some benefit to cultivators, but the cultivation of these crops was limited to certain areas only. Peasants were quite responsive to changes in the relative price of crops, say between grains and cash crops, which in turn affected their supply. But it is also true that producers were dependent on intermediaries, merchants, and moneylenders, for credit and the sale of produce. They had little or no leverage to get the best price or a fair deal. The state machinery was of little or no help in regulating the market.
There were numerous industries for manufacturing and processing of raw material for both domestic and foreign markets. But, like cultivators of land, they were organised on small scale by artisans and craftsmen with traditional skills and almost no capital. To purchase raw material (supplies) and their tools, they depended on merchants, moneylenders, or contractors. The growth of export markets, thanks again to the European trading companies, influenced the production of yarn and fabrics (calicos, etc.), dyes from indigo, silk and silk fabrics, saltpetre, and iron. Production of cotton yarn and fabrics, dyes, silk, and silk fabrics, grew the most because of the rising demand for these products in Europe and East Asia. The small-scale producers, however, depended entirely on moneylenders for advances. The greater competition among buyers, especially for exports, made life a little easier and better for producers. State intervention, through levies, taxes, monopolies, was always unpredictable and often capricious for the artisans and craftsmen. Foreign demand for some of the manufactured products helped to improve the technology and practices used in dyeing, shipbuilding, rope making, and cotton fabrics.
The economy did not diversify by much under the Mughal rule because of lack of growth in income of a vast majority of households, especially those engaged outside the state service as producers in agriculture, manufacturing, and mining, and as labourers without skills. There is no evidence that their lot improved by much if at all during the Mughal rule. Periodic famines, some more serious and widespread than others, caused by drought or flood, wars and pests (e.g., locust), exacerbated by an inefficient and corrupt administration, took their heavy toll on human life and livestock with lasting effects. While a high proportion of the population lived precariously, a thin crust consisted of very wealthy and extravagant upper class, princes, nobles, and hangers-on. A small proportion of the population, most of it in the urban areas, was in the frugal middle class like merchants, financiers, and some professionals. The purchasing power of most producers was limited because of the transfer of their income to maintain about one-fifth if not more of the population in the state service for war, civil administration, and sundry imperial services. Since these groups produced almost nothing, and often hindered production, the labour of peasants, craftsmen, artisans, and other similar groups had to bear their burden. It is also worth noting that in Mughal India slavery was common both in its traditional form — slaves treated as commodities — and modified form in which the peasants and workers often found themselves. The victors could treat men and their families of the defeated armies as slaves both in the traditional and modified form.
After the reign of Aurangzeb (1658–1707), the conditions of the economy and society deteriorated significantly due to massive disorder caused by the wars of succession, regional revolts, and foreign invasions throughout the eighteenth century. The economic impoverishment of India went hand in hand with widespread breakdown of social order and enhanced ethnic and religious divisions. The revenue from Bengal, a province free of turmoil, financed the long-drawn war in the Deccan. Several factors accelerated the economic decline. Prominent among these were: disintegration of the central authority; increased incidence of revenue farming; plunder and pillage by the Marathas, Sikhs, Jats, and the Persian and Afghans invaders. Moreover, the European trading companies, particularly the British and French, engaged in numerous subversive activities like piracy, abuse of dastaks (trade permits), monopoly trade of some commodities, and competition to grab revenue and territory. By the middle of the century, the Indian economy and society were caught in a whirlpool of morass. It would be another one hundred years after which a new economic and social order would be in place under another alien power which, unlike the Mughals and other invaders before them, chose to rule but not settle. India would be under the ‘British Raj,’ first through the British East India Company and then directly under the British crown.
Does this description of the political, social, and economic conditions of India in the eighteenth century give the reader any confidence that the sub-continent would have made progress on its own? India was at war with itself long before the end of the Mughal empire. Politically, the Indian territory had broken up into numerous contesting dynastic states with the same centralised administrative structure as of the Mughal state. They were the mirror image of the despotic Mughal rule. Besides, they were at war with each other for territory and resources to feed their armies and their subjects. How could a decentralised and stable political structure have emerged from this chaos? India was a territory comprising many contesting ministates and their rulers were involved in a zero-sum game. Equally important, the communities were defined by a deep-rooted caste system and religious affinities. India was not a feudal society since the ruler was the only landowner, the rest were his tenants: landholders and cultivators depended on the mercy and pleasure of the ruler. The traditional craft industries and trades, based on the caste system, were also subject to the dictates of the ruler and his administrative machinery. The economy of the successor states showed no signs of change since the idea of private property, particularly in land, was still alien and the market transactions were subject to all kinds of arbitrary and capricious rules and taxes.
I am not arguing that the British imperial rule in India was unambiguously beneficent to its residents. Its primary aim was to use the Indian territory and its resources for the benefit of the people of Britain, especially its capitalists. But it is also true that British created the Indian polity as we know it. India had existed merely as a geographic entity for millennia. As Marx speculated, British imperialism in India transformed its polity, economy, and society from the medieval to modern age. You can call it dependent development, but the alternative would have been far worse since, as I have argued, the internal conditions in India preceding the British conquest were not fortuitous for progress. There were no dialectics for change to a higher state of existence. How could the rulers of the successor states in the post-Mughal period come out of the morass, recognising each other’s sovereignty, or joining hands together in a federation? Who would have been their Bismarck? Alternatively, could the peasants have acquired power through revolution under the leadership of one or more charismatic leaders, a Mao or two? I leave it to the reader to reflect on these questions.
 I have consulted Abu Rayhan al-Biruni (973–1050), Tarikh al Hind (History of India); Stephen Broadberry, Johann Custodis and Bishnupriya Gupta, India and the Great Divergence: An Anglo-Indian Comparison of GDP per capita, Explorations in Economic History,(LSE Research on Line), 2014; David Clingingsmith and Jeffrey G. Williamson, Mughal Decline, Climate Shocks and British Industrial Ascent, NBER Working Paper №11730, November 2005; Irfan Habib (1931-), Essays in Indian History: Towards a Marxist Perception and A People’s History of India (Volume 25): Indian Economy Under Early British Rule, 1757–1857; Angus Maddison, Contours of the World Economy 1–2030 AD: Essays in Macroeconomic History, 2007; Jadunath Sarkar (1870–1958), The Fall of the Mughal Empire (Four Volumes); Shashi Tharoor (1956-), An Era of Darkness: The British Empire in India, 2016, and Inglorious Empire: What the British Did to India, 2017.
 Major Thorn, an officer in the army of General Gerald Lake, says this about the Mughal Emperor Shah Alam II (1759–1804). Cited by Col. Hugh Pearse in Life and Military Services of Viscount Lake, 1903)
 I have examined a map of India (Mughal Disintegration and the Rise of Regional Powers, 1707–1766) that shows the successor states and claimants to the disintegrating Mughal empire. The Maratha Confederacy, comprising the contesting Maratha clans of Bhonsle, Holkar, Sindhia, and Gaekwar, was the largest in area, ranging from the Western ghats to Gujrat and covering most of the present-day state of Madhya Pradesh up to Orissa. There were five Muslim states in the Peninsula: Nizam of Hyderabad, Bijapur, Golcunda, Mysore, and Carnatic. In the east, there was the Muslim state of Bengal and Bihar. In the present-day Utter Pradesh, the Nawab of Oudh and the Rohillas controlled most of the area. Jats ruled over the area around Agra. Rajputs had several small states, including Ajmer, Jaipur, Jodhpur, Marwar, and Malwa. Kalhoras had Sindh up to the Kutch. The Ahmedzai Afghans had the states of Kalat, Markran, and Lasbela. The Abdali (Afghan) state covered Kandahar, Kabul, and western Punjab, including Lahore and Multan. The Sikhs occupied most of the eastern part of Punjab and part of Kashmir. There were small Muslim states in Baltistan, Gilgit, Hunza, and Chitral
 Angus Maddison has estimated that the size of India’s economy was 35 per cent of the world economy in 1700 and 27 per cent in 1820. India’s share in the world population was 27 per cent in 1700 and 20 per cent in 1820.
 Stephen Broadberry and colleagues have estimated that the per capita GDP in India (in 1990 International dollars) fell from $682 in 1600 to $622 in 1700. It was $569 in 1801 and $520 in 1821.
 David Clingingsmith and Jeffrey Williamson analyse the thesis that India was deindustrialized by the East India Company and the British Crown.
 It took the countries in Europe more than two centuries after the Reformation to start building the new nation states and take the first steps, at least in Britain and Holland, towards the Industrial Revolution.