The 18th Century Debate: Change or Continuity?

18th century marked a very important period in Indian History, as the interpretation facilitated unity in division of thoughts. The period in question is the time when the Mughals declined and the British took over the administrative power.
As seamless as it sounds, it wasn’t the case. The historiography of the first half of 18th century highlighted the Mughal decline as well as the continuity that was seen by the other scholars who contributed to its historiography. For a long time, it was considered an era of darkness characterized by political disintegration, economic decline, warfare and disorder. However in the past four decades, a series of new region-centric studies have emerged, emphasizing the vibrant aspects of the century with different lenses. These studies together have brewed enough evidence to suggest that the first half of the 18th century was not a century of absolute and all-encompassing darkness, but rather saw the politico-economic decline of a few regions while many other regions flourished culturally, socially and economically.

As far as the latter half of the century is concerned, focusing on the establishment of colonial rule, there is a mixed evidence of continued growth and decline in various regions, until the flow of bullion is gradually reversed in the direction towards the end of the century. Even then, there is evidence that some regions continued to experience growth due to trade with other Asian or South East Asian regions.

The picture that thus emerges is holistic in its depth and width and elaborates the many aspects of growth, dismissing the idea that the century was wholly ‘dark’. The essay seeks to present the older historiography of ‘decline’ and contrast it with the newer historiography of ‘regionalism’ which is substantiated by historians with the help of examples and evidence from regional studies.

The Theory of ‘Decline’:
During the British rule, the period under question was scrutinized by colonial historians like James Mill. He portrayed the 18th century as a ‘dark’ century which was rescued by the establishment of colonial rule. Later, Nationalists scholars continued this trend, arguing that without this ‘dark’ age, colonialism would have been impossible and adding further that the situation declined further after its advent. In the early years of the 20th century, studies focused primarily on imperial political decline, which was attributed to the administrative and religious policies of the Mughal emperors. While some scholars like Jadunath Sarkar, who wrote five volumes titled ‘Fall of the Mughal Empire’ studied Aurangzeb’s religious policies, his later Deccan campaigns, and traced the decline in Mughal economy, institutions and society to Aurangzeb’s faulty policies. He also studied the peasant rebellions that destroyed Mughal political stability as a Hindu reaction to Aurangzeb’s Muslim orthodoxy. Sarkar blamed Aurangzeb’s discriminatory religious policies for the rise of “Hindu” groups such as the Sikhs and the Marathas in reaction. British administrative scholars, such as William Irvine too saw this imperial decline as caused by the deteriorating character of its emperors and viewed it in terms of its ruling elite only.

The historians from Aligarh School, furthered the arguments. Satish Chandra and Irfan Habib proposed an unprecedented structural and materialist analysis of the decline of the Mughal Empire, singling out the structural weakness of the centralized revenue collection system of the empire as the reason for its fiscal crisis. Satish Chandra’s argument was that the fiscal crisis was caused by the incapability of the imperial officers to collect revenue smoothly, worsened by the inability of the state to meet the mansabdar’s demand for jagirs. He later attributed the relative decline of jagirs to the flawed functioning of the jagirdari system itself which had led to a ‘jagirdari crisis’. In the 1980’s he further argued that the jagirs had become unfertile and the intensification of the difference between jama (estimated revenue) and haasil (actual yields) had affected revenue income. Habib’s work was popularized in the 1960’s and according to him, the state’s oppression had created resistance from the peasants suffering from exploitation leading to peasant rebellions and an agrarian crisis. The jagirdars extracted from their jagirs as much as they could within the few years they were allotted before transfer and further increased the deterioration of the peasantry. The subsequent revolts were also supported by zamindars who resented the extraction of surplus from their villages by the state, although his link between the jagirdari crisis and zamindari resentment is exaggerated. It was the decline or shortage of jagirs rather than high revenue demand that Athar Ali attributed imperial collapse to. However, J.F Richard’s study counters this argument by proposing that there was no lack of jagirs since the Deccan had plenty of them, but that most of the allotted jagirs were infertile since the fertile ones were added to the state’s khalisa.
All the theories mentioned here, of the colonialists of the Marxist historians, take for granted the assumption that the 18th century was characterized by decline. Even post 1950’s analysis, the political decline of the Mughal State is unquestioningly connected to the economic decline of the empire. But can this very decline be substantiated with examples from the period? While the equation of political decentralization and decline fall short of examples, all these were clubbed together for a narrative of the 18th century debate characteristically being that of decline.

The New Historiography:
The newer historiography was a break from the previous state-centric viewpoint. The ideas which conceptualized some thirty forty years ago, is taking grounds which has questioned the earlier interpretations of the 18th century debate. It has thus, sought to view it in his own terms rather than in the shadow of the predecessor or successor empires. This school of thought shifted the focus from agrarian system and the machinery of revenue attractions to the social and cultural relations. Under its aegis the historiography which emerged was of regional studies that questioned the extent of Mughal centralization itself. While the view of the Mughal state as highly centralized due to its attitude, in actuality there were huge informal arrangements in its functioning. For Barnett, the empire was made up of blocks glued together by the emperor and even at the decline of the state, the blocks glued together by the emperor and even at the decline of the state, the blocks merely came apart without deterioration.
Sanjay Subramanian and Muzaffar Alam compare the empire to ‘patchwork quilt’ rather that a ‘wall to wall carpet’. The 18th century according to these historians need not be viewed from the point of view of the Mughals only. Delhi and Agra might have witnessed a decline, but provinces such as Bengal, Awadh, Punjkab etc were witnessing dynamic changes and economic reorientation. Thus these historians focus on the concept of ‘decentralization’ and ‘regionalization’ rather than ‘collapse’ or ‘decline’ as the key words for the century: The Mughal Empire was ‘disaggregated’ rather than ‘monolithic’.
The traditional views have been challenged by Cambridge School that saw the arrival of colonialism as a long-drawn historical process. C.A Bayly initiated the revisionist approach to the analysis of Mughal polity, he emphasizes that ‘the key note of the Mughal rule had been size and centralization’. He sees the decline of the Mughal empire in a positive light, where the ‘Corporate groups’ or ‘Social classes’ played their role through the commercialization and decentralization of the Mughal polity in extending agriculture and intensifying commerce and later shifting their allegiance to the British for beneficial power. Bayly’s continuity thesis assesses the performance of the regional elites, forming the 18th century transition states.
Sanjay Subramaniam has suggested a global approach by speculating the increased connectivity of the local and the supra-local, through travel, commerce, conflict and intellectual/cultural exchange, as a critical and widespread feature of early modernity. He suggested the term ‘portfolio Capitalist’ for the groups that were simultaneously involved in both commerce and politics like traders, bankers and merchants.
Was it change or continuity? As we conclude, we can clearly see that the 18th century polity, economy and society are characterized by trends that reflect both change and continuity. The debate becomes more intense and pertinent for the second half of the 18th century, which saw the beginnings of British colonial expansion in northern India and its impact on the local society and economy.
Continuity and change in the field of music, architecture, economic systems and culture is also debatable. The artists shifted to other regional and culture is also debatable. The artists shifted to other regional centers as the Mughal Empire became insufficient to support their patronage; this change was juxtaposed with an element of continuity as the patron-client relationship remained same.

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