Book Review : Indian Economy Under Early British Rule – Irfan Habib

Published April 6, 2014 by vishalvkale

First, history… and then, to top that, Economic History. Yaaaawn, you would think; yet another long-winded treatise that is boooring, you would think. You could not be more off the mark; the current book stands as the best, most interesting and power-packed book on Indian History that I have ever encountered. It is short, to-the-point, powerful, and deeply engaging in its flawless narrative and nearly irrefutable in its scathing indictment of the British.

Next, why should you read this? Reason : because any number of educated Indians regard the British rule as either a boon, or just another subduing power. For them, this book forms the ideal vehicle; it deals with that easily understandable commodity – money, moolah, cash. Not for this book the esoteric realms of cultural subjugation a-la Pawan Verma; or the cruel horrors of imperial murder and genocide in 1857 and 1942-44 a-la other writers. This deals with a subject that is easy to explain, as well as understand and empathise with, driving home the sheer brutality of the British Rule, as well as the fact that we got nothing in return for it that we would not have otherwise got.

The most engaging and powerful part of the book is that it provides dated, irrefutable historical writings from the period being covered at the end of each chapter; each of these – called “extracts” – is both a powerful proof as well as a window into that times, the flawed and one-sided decision making, as well as a window into the India as it used to be in those days; as these extracts were written as history was taking place, much as our modern news articles.

The Indians are in many things of matchless ingenuity in their several employments… In some things the artists  India outdo all the ingenuty of Europe – John Ovington, 1689

In commercial dealings, the honesty of the people of this country is such that, let a complete stranger deposit the the sarrafs hundreds of thousands of cash….  would on demand repay the sum without any delay… honest sarrafs give in Hindwi writings…  agents throughout the country… repay on demand…  Sujan Rai, 1695-96

We are looking at a countrywide system of hundis – or cash transfer system, which is frankly stunningly flawless, forms the economic backbone of the trade. Even more amazing, bill discounting , insurance, merchants, traders and banks etc so-called western concepts were already present nation-wide. And no proofs were kept or demanded; it was based on trust – and a peice of paper. Note the commentary of the observer from 1695; one then wonders wherefrom we learnt corruption, and dishonesty that we see all around us today? This is period evidence – irrefutable.

Indeed, most of Hyder’s operations seem to be highly judicious and reasonable… respected by natives of all dewscriptions – Francis Buchanan, 1807

Tipu Sultan’s plans to introduce industrial technology – Persian MS copies of Tipu Sultan’s instructions for his ambassadors of Turkey and France… 1785 – 86. Hello, what was it about us not getting industrial technology? It appears that we were in the process of industrialising, but could not. Now why was that? Because the EIC took over, and instead of introducing technology, which local rulers were doing, took to raping the land, using it as a captive market, and as a source of raw material. Result, the annual inflow of gold and silver turned into a annual; outflow, resulting in the poverty you now see around us.

The book goes on into the impact of revenue farming from land, and the conversion of the landed labourer into beggars or landless labourers. It looks at the heart-rending situation as millions of skilled workers were rendered homeless, and without work; it looks at the losses to industrial units, which lost 73% revenue within 3 years of the advent of British Rule.

It looks at how a well-to-do nation with an advanced, a very, very highly advanced culture and internal systems was wrecked by what I call less civilized but more brutal inhuman creatures. It looks at the systematic destruction of India in every sector – industrial and agricultural. It dwells on the systematic de-industrialisation of an advanced honest and great civilization that was in most respects far ahead of Europe. And it provides irrefutable proof and evidence.

Read this book to know the India that was, the golden land, the sone ke chidiya… you will not regret it. Feel the pride at what we were, the tragic grief of our total destruction at the hands of a buccaneering and underdeveloped people, and at our crass foolishness that led to this. Read the book  to understand how India was one country, with extensive cross-border trade and advanced systems, and its ambassadorial relations with the world…

There is no reason for us to feel inferior; if anything, we were actually ahead of the west in innumerable areas, as western writers have themselves observed…

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