Medieval India—A Conversation

Harbans Mukhia taught medieval history for over 4 decades at Delhi University and JNU and retired as Rector of JNU. He has authored many books on the subject like: Exploring India’s medieval centuries; The Mughals of India; Historians and Historiography during the reign of Akbar; Perspectives in Medieval History; Feudalism and Non-Euorpean societies (co-edited with T Byres); The Feudalism Debate: French Studies in History (co-edited with M Aymard) and so on. He is currently National Fellow of ICHR. Shivanand Kanavi conversed with him on various issues regarding medieval Indian history.

Harbans Mukhia taught medieval history for over 4 decades at Delhi University and JNU and retired as Rector of JNU. He has authored many books on the subject like: Exploring India’s medieval centuries; The Mughals of India; Historians and Historiography during the reign of Akbar; Perspectives in Medieval History; Feudalism and Non-Euorpean societies (co-edited with T Byres); The Feudalism Debate: French Studies in History (co-edited with M Aymard) and so on. He is currently National Fellow of ICHR. Shivanand Kanavi conversed with him on various issues regarding medieval Indian history.

SK: How would you characterize the evolution of Indian history?
HM: India I think is unique. There is no other region anywhere in the world that has faced migrations and invasions of so many different people. All of them settled down here except for the British. Hence, the diversity of India is quite unique. Other regions, indeed every single region on the globe also had faced invasions and migrations but the number of migrations and invasions and eventual settlement in India is unprecedented. And this has lent a dynamism to Indian society, contrary to what we had learnt as students in the late 1950s; the dynamism is visible in every arena of history: economy, technology, culture, philosophy, polity, administration, even modes of dressing, food, language, you name it.

We should always remember the many layers in the very idea of India and not think of just one characteristic which will destroy the Indianness and its complexity. Pluralism I think best characterizes the evolution of Indian history.

SK: When does ‘medieval’ India begin and why?
HM: In recent years there is a questioning of the whole notion of periodisation. In the writing of Indian history down to the 19th century there was no notion of periodisation, the tripartite division of ancient, medieval and modern came to us from late 17th C Europe. It came to India, China, West Asia etc. towards the end of the 19th or early 20th century. In Indian history the division was first introduced in 1901 by Stanley Lane-Poole. It did not take root here because of superior intellectual content but because Europeans had colonized Asia militarily, politically, administratively, economically and not least intellectually.

Initially periodisation was political or dynastic history intertwined with religion. So you had ancient or Hindu period, the medieval was also Muslim period and the modern was so called British period. When the religion of the ruling dynasties changed, the historical period also changed. This was ridiculous simplification of very complex history. Later on some Marxist historians came along and looked at social, economic and technological changes etc. Thus, a new kind of tripartite division was introduced centering on social and economic transformations. Earlier the Ancient period ended with Harsha and medieval started with 1000-1200 AD with Ghazni or Delhi Sultanate and ending with the death of Aurangzeb. British period began with 1765 to 1947. Mid 8th century to 11th century or even 12th century and also between 1707 and 1765 was “nobody’s period”. Some Marxists identified an Early Medieval period 7th-8th to 11th-12th century with the so called rise of feudalism, followed by medieval and colonial periods.

Now many historians all over the world are questioning the logic of ancient, medieval and modern. If someone will be writing history in the 23rd century then how will s/he characterize today’s India? Or indeed today’s world? How would they characterise 19th or 20th century which are supposed to be modern par excellence for us? But that would be a very unlikely looking back from 23rd century and surely not medieval or ancient.

It should be remembered that periods are concepts not empirical facts; they are culturally or historiographically constructed to analyse history and they come and disappear with time. We have to have new analytical categories. In the context of India, the study of history through the category of religious identities began to recede especially after Kosambi. New categories of analysis like feudalism; class; social and economic structures etc. replaced denominational identities. Then feudalism also became controversial. I would look at history in terms of human interaction with ecology for production of wealth and how that kept changing. That will give you a different picture altogether. Upto the Mauryan period there was one kind of society. It was characterized by extremely rich and extremely poor people. There were daridra people and there were huge landowners with lands ploughed by 500 ploughs. In the post Gupta period small peasant production, petty peasants start playing a role and this goes on for a very long time and slowly they dominate the production process. Not the economy, but the production process.

With the establishment of Delhi sultanate and the Mughal empire there is a great deal of centralization of authority not over the production but over produce. It was still in the hand of small peasants but changes happened in the distribution of the surplus.

Even though I have practiced it all my professional life, I now have problems with looking at history through the prism of mega categories like feudalism and capitalism etc. They become self-contained in a way. There is a constant tension in society at all levels and it does not get reflected in these self-contained categories; or rather it gets reflected only at the point of explosion when one mega system is supposed to have come crashing down, to be replaced by another mega system. I like the concept of a million mutinies and not just one event transforming the world at one go.

A million mutinies take place everywhere and these tensions lead to change and not one explosive change. Indeed, a lot continues when things change and a lot changes when things continue.

SK: There is also another feature that is without invading other countries India influenced many different regions of the world. South East Asia; East Asia; China; West Asia and so on
HM: Exactly, so the ancient and medieval was far more interactive world than we have conceded so far.

SK: I was amazed for example that Guru Nanak Dev traveled to Mecca, Baghdad, Tibet etc in those days perhaps on mule trains etc.

HM: Yes long distance traveling was very common. Even if you read Panchatantra you see everybody traveling! It was not static at all. Indeed, the whole of the ancient and medieval world seems to have been travelling all over in small or large groups as pilgrims, traders, migrants or large military battalions. They carried with them ideas, religions, cultures, crops, and not least forging of very long distance links between regions. Remember Alexander, Hieun Tsang, Changez Khan. All kinds of foods migrated from very far off lands everywhere.

The complexity of Indian society is far greater because of this reason: the number of languages, cultures, ethnic groups, religions etc. is far greater than anywhere else. Therefore, whether it is economy or culture giving a single characteristic is inadequate. Every generalisation captures only one feature and does not capture the layers and multiplicity of facets.

SK: You spoke about the uniqueness of India. What is the history of the concept of India?

HM: Well, India as a territorial unit has a highly fragmented history. Indeed, India is obviously an English language word. What is the indigenous word for India? Is it Bharat? Then it will exclude the North East and South of the Vindhyas it will even exclude North West as well as the whole of the western region; it boils down to only the Indo-Gangetic plains. Hindustan is a Persian-language word, also denoting the same plains. What is the term for country? Is it desh or more colloquially des? But ‘des’ is the place of one’s birth. If I go to Hyderabad and I am going back home I would be asked ‘desjaarahehain?’And a person going out from, say, Patna to Kolkata in search of a living would be going to pardes. It is only during India’s Freedom Struggle during the late 19th and first half of the 20th C that the idea of India as a single entity emerged and took hold of the minds of people.

But then it is not the case with India alone. For example Fernand Braudel, one of the greatest historians of France wrote “l’Identité de la France” the “Identity of France” in two volumes. He virtually begins by asking ‘Is France one country and one society?’ and shows that French was spoken all over France only after radio and TV came in, in the twentieth century and the single identity of France began to take shape, though even now there is some resistance from its region Brittany. Similar to Wales and Scotland in the UK.

Thus, you don’t have these concepts of country as single units that we have today in the medieval or ancient world, but at the same time there is an idea of India. The notion of unity in diversity captures that quite well. There is no conflict between being an Odiya and an Indian, being a Bengali and an Indian or a Sikh and an Indian and a Muslim and an Indian. It is difficult to define it but there is something in Indianness.

SK: Most versions of history of India talk a little bit about Harappan civilization then Magadh and Gupta periods and village society and the caste system and that is it. But then where is South India and Eastern India in this scheme of things?

HM: I agree. Indeed, much of what has gone by as ‘Indian history’ has really been the history of north India or of Hindustan. Other histories have mostly been treated as regional histories, thus assigning them a lower status. But the realisation that India is greater than Bharat or Hindustan and its history must comprehend all its parts has increasingly been accepted by the academia, often in theory, sometimes in practice.

SK: Leaving aside the inadequacies of various classifications how would you look at the evolution of pre-colonial India?

HM: Even the Colonial period which is taken as given is being questioned: that before 1765 there was one India and later there was another is also being questioned. It is a departure from the good old history where a new regime and a new period begins or ends on one day when one or the other group wins a tiny battle and the other loses it. The question is of continuity in change and change in continuity.

But before I come to India let me mention another very important debate that is going on all over the world about the question of Modernity. Till 1990s modernity was a given. It was associated with capitalism, industrialism, individualism electoral democracy etc. Today even in Europe and the US this is being questioned. ‘Is that all there is to modernity?’ Many are coming around to the view that every region and society and people have contributed to it and it is not a gift of the West to the rest of the world to follow. Every society has contributed. Without exception India and China too have been shaped by other influences in food, ideas, army etc. India has had constant contact with other parts like Central Asia, China, Europe. India is rich because of its absorption of other cultures and contributing to other civilisations too. On the other hand China’s and India’s contributions to the emergence of the modern world has been immense and is getting increasingly recognised by scholars everywhere. As for giving a characterisation’ or a name to it, or to classify it, I have now become shy of it, because any name you give over simplifies the fascinating complexities.

SK: In the pre-colonial period what kind of land ownership or agrarian relations existed. It has been called feudal, semi-feudal etc. which I can’t understand especially the word semi-feudal etc.

HM: There were primarily two kind of owners of land one is a peasant proprietor and the other is the state especially hills rivers forests etc. The actual process of cultivation is done by peasant with his own and his family’s labour. He not only has right to use but also ownership. There were also large land owners who hired labour. This was wage labour and not serf labour. Begar (compulsory labour) was there but it was used for nonproductive purposes e.g. carry baggage, labour during land owners’ family functions like marriage etc. but not for agriculture. Even when the state hired labourers they were paid. And even the state had to purchase land from its owner if the state required it. Taj Mahal for example was built by Shahjahan on land purchased by him. It was Raja Jai Singh who owned that piece of land and sold it to his sovereign. There were small and big peasant proprietors.

SK: Normally ownership is associated with alienation (buying and selling) and in your paper (“Was there feudalism in Indian history?” Journal of Peasant Studies, 1981) you mention that while the right to alienate was there in pre-colonial India there was no land market hence buying and selling was uncommon. However, was there right to evict peasants, which has been exercised frequently since Cornwallis’ permanent Settlement in Bengal?

HM: There was Zamindari right but it was not ownership right. The zamindar was a village potentate and used to collect taxes for the King. The owner was still the peasant proprietor. Then the Mughals brought in Jagirdar over Zamindar. Jagir was not for ownership but collecting taxes. Permanent settlement changed the character of Zamindars and made them owners and they could now evict peasants and thus inverted the whole character of the system like they did in Europe too. When the Mughal state granted Inam it was usually in uncultivated land and the idea was to extend cultivation so they were inviting people and not evicting them. In fact in 18th century there are enough records of peasants threatening to leave land due to oppression of taxes and the state immediately paid heed to their pleas and took steps to restrain them from leaving the village. Eviction was not in anybody’s interest. I have quoted many chitthis, actually complaints against officials, from peasants who were thus persuaded and brought back.

SK: Here is an anecdote, a Maharashtrian woman mentioned to me that she belonged to mali (gardener) caste and the village Panchayat (Satara district) had given them some land since their traditional job was community service of supplying flowers to the temple. However, in the last couple of generations almost all able bodied men from her family had joined the Indian Army and hence the Panchayat now took the land back. That means the community also allocated land.

HM: Yes community also exercised ownership and allocated it conditionally. If you stopped cultivating, then your right also ceased. But the state did not intervene in the process of production. It happened under colonialism for example forcing peasants to grow cotton, indigo etc. How or what you grew was upto you. Thus, there was enormous scope for individual entrepreneurship in agriculture, including irrigation. Most 19th century historians were wrong in saying that state provided all irrigation, which was supposed be the basis of “Oriental Despotism”. State provided some irrigation canals but mostly it was left to individual innovation e.g. chadas, dhenkli, ghatiyantra, Persian Wheel etc. What is fascinating about all history and Indian history is that it is very complex and there are hundreds of examples and counterexamples on every side.

SK: It is said that pre-colonial Indian society was static. However, the period 8th century to 18th century is the most fascinating period of ferment in India with Bhakti and Sufi.

HM: Professor Rajat Datta of JNU has edited a book called “Rethinking A Millenium: India between Eighth and Eighteenth Century’ which re-evaluates the received wisdom about this millennium. I agree in fact I am increasingly fascinated by Bhakti ideology. Islam came to India with an alternative concept of God and an alternative mode of worshipping God and that of spreading faith. Christianity and Islam are predicated on establishing the ultimate truth and the inevitability of the victory over infidels. The notion of “The Truth” is inherent in Islam and Christianity on the other hand in Hindu notion there is not one truth or one book or one prophet and hence there are many truths.

SK: I am sure it modified Islam also.

HM: Yes, it profoundly did. It was Bhakti saints and some of the Sufi saints who created the notion of one universal God and no conflict between Allah, Ishwar or any number of personal Gods. That is the source of survival of Indian nation even to this day. Coming to Indian Islam, there is another fact I want to bring up. Muslim kings ruled for 550-600 years. As a theological state they should have gone around converting people to Islam. In 1830 and 1854 there is some evidence that says Muslims constituted roughly 15-16% of the population. In 1941 the last census before partition there were 25% Muslims. Thus, 50% increase during British rule. Now where were they in majority: in Kashmir, in North West which is now Pakistan, in East Bengal, now Bangladesh, and parts of Assam and Malabar?

Thus they were in four corners and three of them were never under solid control of ‘Muslim’ rule. The fourth, Malabar was forever beyond the reach of the ‘Muslim’ state. It thus makes nonsense of the argument that the medieval ‘Muslim’ state converted masses of Hindus to Islam on the point of the sword. In fact, the density of Muslim population in the subcontinent is in inverse proportion to the strength of the medieval‘Muslim’ state.

SK: How did Islam then spread in India? There are some historians who say Islam spread in India because it was democratic and people were oppressed by caste system. What is the truth? Did it spread with the sword or opportunism or proselytising.

HM: The argument of the oppressive caste system as the reason for conversions is absurd. In that case it would have spread more in Indo- Gangetic plain where caste was more rigid. But it did not happen thus. The subcontinent has the largest Muslim population in the world. But there is not a single book on the subject for there is no data. There are two books on Kashmir and one on Bengal and an essay on Rajasthan, but no book on India as a whole. If one agency or ruler had done the conversion, either he would have boasted of it or others would have lamented about it. Sufis converted some but not on mass scale. They traveled from one Muslim area to another Muslim area. Thus, conversion was not the main aim of Muslim rulers in India unlike what they did in the whole of Arabia or Persia. The state was converting some, the Sufis did some but it was all at such a slow pace that nobody noticed it. It took nearly 300 years for conversions in Punjab and Bengal, that is why nobody notices it. Once in a while it was by sword. For example, when Hemu was defeated by Akbar and he was offered conversion which Hemu declined and he was killed. But it does not explain massive conversion. One explanation is that many of these areas were earlier under Buddhist influence and hence a transition from one egalitarian religion to another like Islam, was not such a big change for them. But that is just a suggestion.

SK: Indian culture is a very iconic culture and it affected Buddhism also. So perhaps Islam itself underwent a change in India.

HM: That is true in Bengal and Kashmir. After all Islam came to Kashmir through Nooruddin Rishi who is also called Nand Rishi (Charar e Sharief is his dargah). So much Bhakti literature was written during this period including Tulsi’s Ramacahritmanas and none of these books lament or even mention Islam as a threat. The aggression of one absolute truth in Islam is tamed by the relativist many truths of Hinduism. Several historians, Abul Fazl for example used the word Jihad as war not against Hindus but a war against those Muslims who were not ready to accept Akbar’s rule. The first communal riot recorded in history was in 1713-14 in Ahmedabad! There was a Holi festival and there was some rivalry between two jewel merchants which later turned into riot. Prior to that there is no record of a communal riot. There was fighting between Mughals and Marathas, Mughals and Sikhs, Mughals and Jats but everybody’s army had all communities. In the whole of 18th century there were 5 communal riots. I think it is the ideology of Bhakti which defused any tension.

SK: The rigidity of caste system in pre-colonial India has been cited by colonialists to justify their rule and many Indians have accepted it.

HM: Manu Smriti etc. are normative texts like our Constitution. It does not mean that actual life follows it. It is the simplistic approach of one aspect explaining everything. British started the caste census and it became a prominent category in the consciousness of people because it was being used for power sharing. Professor R S Sharma had once given an invited lecture which was published as a pamphlet, called ‘Social Mobility in Early Medieval India’. In this he demonstrated that there existed considerable individual as well as group mobility from one caste to another in 7th-8th century. The caste of Kayasthas was unheard of before this period, but gradually acquired powerful presence in society and state. Clearly, the caste system was far from rigid and all pervasive. In general any single explanation for everything should be looked at with suspicion. India’s diversity and complexity are delightful and without it we are shorn of very Indianness.

SK: Thank you very much Prof Mukhia it has been a very interesting conversation.

HM: Thank you. It has been a pleasure for me.

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