FOIBLES OF HISTORIANS - Marxism, whimsy and the Mughal age

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By Writing on the wall - Ashok V. Desai
  • Published 16.12.08

Irfan Habib is the doyen of historians of the Mughal age. He published a book on the Mughal agrarian system 45 years ago, when most of the world’s people were not even born. He was soon appointed professor in Aligarh, which has been a formidable vantage point.

In 1972, I took time off from work and taught in Delhi School of Economics. Once when I was browsing in the bookshops close by, I came across Abu’l Fazl’s Ain-i-Akbari. There I saw some statistics of the Mughal empire. I compared them with recent ones, and concluded that the average real wage of Akbar’s courtiers was 45 per cent higher than the average Indian real wage in the 1960s. I found that yields per acre of major foodgrains were two to three times as high in Akbar’s time as the Indian average in the 1960s — not surprising since the cultivated area in 1595 was a fraction of what it is now, and Mughal subjects would have cultivated only the most fertile and best watered tracts since they had to pay high taxes. From revenue-yielding agricultural area I worked out the food production of Mughal India. After considering that people then must have eaten more foodgrains per head, I came to an estimated population of 10 crore for the Mughal empire. I published my results in the Indian Economic and Social History Review.

These results did not suit Irfan Habib’s Marxist tendencies. In his view, people are always exploited and paid a subsistence wage in all pre-Marxist societies; so real wages in Mughal India could not have been higher. He put a student to work on the subject; she produced an entire PhD thesis. I thought of refuting her. But it would have been an unequal battle. In answer to a brief reply from me, she would have written another book replete with references to some Iranian manuscript of the 16th century and some revenue records lying in some obscure library in a remote UP village. Without a chair in Aligarh, I could not command access to such rare sources; and without a lifetime to devote to it, I could not have acquired knowledge of mediaeval Persian. So I left history behind and turned to current affairs.

Now Shireen Moosvi is herself on the way to becoming a doyen. She has written books and articles. With her scholarship she got invitations to dozens of conferences, for which she produced more papers. She has put these together in a book, People, Taxation and Trade in Mughal India (Oxford, 2008). They show a mind working beyond, sometimes even against, the teachings of Irfan Habib, forgetting doctrinaire Marxism and sometimes even having fun with history.

Indian history is largely devoid of women; they were for the harem and the kitchen. So words are lacking for the description of women in the Mughal age. Instead, Moosvi looks at miniatures, which teem with women, and comes to bold conclusions only historians can reach. Thus she finds a painting of a bearded old man in a balcony pointing a long stick at a boy and a girl sitting in a garden with a kind of cricket bat on which there are some scribbles, and concludes that girls were allowed to be educated. Another muscular woman bends on top of a well; it follows that women fetched water. A third woman is standing before a spinning wheel and pulling a thread from the spindle; so women must have spun. How she span standing, and without turning the spinning wheel, remains a historic mystery.

It is well known that Cristoforo Colon, the Italian in the service of the Spanish king, was looking for India when he lost his way and found the West Indies instead in 1498. It is not so well known, but Pedro Alvares Cabral, a Portuguese looking to get past Africa on the way to India lost his way and discovered Brazil two years later. In the following decades, the Portuguese and the Spaniards overran Latin America, discovered the gold hoards of the Incas, killed them off and enslaved them and brought back tons of gold and silver. The treasure solved the problem of finding something to sell to Indians, who lacked nothing. So the 17th century saw a considerable influx of gold and silver into India. But there was no such influx of copper, which was the metal from which dams (one-fortieth of a Rupee), the currency of the common man, were made. That should have made dams more expensive. Moosvi gives an index of the silver price of copper; according to it, copper actually became cheaper in the 1620s and 1630s, then became more expensive in the 1660s, and finally ended up in 1700 where it was 100 years ago. She also gives the dam equivalent of the Rupee; within two years, 1605-07, she gives four equivalents between 38 and 66 dams. Then for 1609 she gives an equivalent of 80 pice, and then assumes that pice were the same as dams, which seems very unlikely. In more recent times, the Rupee was made of 64 pice.

Mughal princesses did not count much, except to give away to enemies in return for peace; Mughal kings did not even bother to count daughters; they were more mindful of sons. Since they had harems full of women, there was no limit to the number of sons they could sire. Babar was the champion. In between his wars, and his running in and out of India, he had 17 sons. Jehangir and Shahjehan came next with 15 each; Humayun, who fell down the steps of his library in Delhi’s Purana Qila and met an untimely death, had 14; and Aurangzeb, his son who imprisoned him, had 10. Of 98 sons that the royals had in two centuries, 41 died in their infancy; even regal care did not ensure the survival of two-fifths of the progeny. Moosvi includes Dara Shukoh and Shah Shuja though she does not have infant deaths amongst their sons, and gets a death rate of 38 per cent for the royals. It was higher than the 31 per cent infant mortality recorded amongst the British nobility between 1480 and 1679.

Moosvi works out the gross cultivated area for various parts of Akbar’s empire, and compares it with area cultivated in the early 20th century. Just why she chose early 20th century figures for comparison is not clear; presumably, they were in a book lying on her desk when she was working out the figures. But figures of gross cultivated area are available right up to early 21st century; why not compare those with the figures for 1595? That might have been more illuminating; but maybe it would not have been so historical.

These are not the only places where I found Moosvi’s interpretations idiosyncratic and frustrating. But she obviously knows much about the Mughal age — so much that it is difficult to organize her immense learning. I hope she will keep writing; maybe eventually, her work will go beyond whimsy and become authoritative. Maybe it will even replace Irfan Habib, whose Marxist framework made it unnecessary for him to ask questions.