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Updated: February 24, 2014 22:14 IST

18 century Bengal was no history of decline

S. Ananthakrishnan
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Political Culture and Economy in Eighteenth-Century Bengal — Networks of Exchange, Consumption and Communication: Tilottama Mukherjee; Orient Blackswan, 1/24, Asaf Ali Road, New Delhi-110002. Rs. 825.
Special Arrangement Political Culture and Economy in Eighteenth-Century Bengal — Networks of Exchange, Consumption and Communication: Tilottama Mukherjee; Orient Blackswan, 1/24, Asaf Ali Road, New Delhi-110002. Rs. 825.

The art of writing the history of 18th Century Bengal is not only challenging but is also a polarised one. Historiography mentions 18th century Bengal as a period of decline and degeneration after the Mughals, while a few other historians extol the emergence of regional flavour, style and expression. Some revisionist writing comments on the political and economic animation of that period. The present book elucidates the crumbling of the Mughal edifice accompanied by agricultural and commercial growth.

Tilottama Mukherjee’s book, Political Culture and Economy in Eighteenth-Century Bengal is more ‘a social history of the economy rather than a systematic and sustained analysis’. The writer endeavours to use the markets and transport to understand and comprehend the economy and the state in Bengal from 1750-1800CE.

The political authorities, the Nizamat, landed proprietors, the East Indian Company and even the peasants realised the importance of mercantile activity to Bengal and thus Markets (Hats, Ganjs and Bazaars) were given impetus. The markets focused on the role of individual initiative in its formation and functioning.

The view that the large scale penury dominated historical writing calls for reassessment as foundation and survival of such large scale number of local markets made it inconceivable without local buying and selling. The fundamental impetus was that the market actions perceived as production, consumption and trade in many centres had made consumption patterns variegated.

The period saw trade, politics and religion intertwined. Pilgrimages being popular generated revenue through duties and fiscal interest which boosted local trade and economy. Shrines and monuments were organized on the patterns of commercial establishments. Thus political authorities used pilgrimages and fairs as a source of political legitimization.

‘A facilitating state’

The movement of people and commodities necessitated a healthy communication network. The river systems and surface transport linked trade with urban centres. The importance of the transport and economy made the state to regulate them. Traders were mobile, got enough returns to survive through access to wider clientele.

Commenting on the State, it was neither a parasitic one nor a proto-bourgeois government but a ‘facilitating state’-as the rules and regulations were created to the foundation of the markets and their functioning. The Nizamat was an efficient entity with a well developed court, society and high consumption levels. There was undisputed jurisdiction and sovereignty over the economic and political spheres made the early modern State “characterized by fragmentation of authority and dispersal of power” while East India Company was” an intrusive State with fragmentation by authority and dispersal of power”.

By contrast, the East India Company exceeded its role of market functions and ultimately conveyed on an illegitimate assumption of full monopoly of state powers. This saw new features introduced by the Company for increased levels of coercion in the economic management. This was followed by increased military garrison leaving ecological repercussions.

Resilient economy of the eighteenth century could not stop the downward slide in the next. The evidence suggest that poverty was more contingent ,due to famine and other climatic conditions, warfare, localised political interference rather than as a result of fundamental flaw in the economic structure. There was no extra revenue demand making this a dynamic system. The merchants and indigenous groups survived by maximizing profits.

Lack of investment in Industries, population growth, changing pattern of overseas demand, the collapse of the textile industries, decline of Murshidabad, increasing rigidity of the Zamindari systems, ecological changes, all contributed towards the decline of the economy in the nineteenth century. The Company ruptured the relationship between trade, ecology and the power that had created the commercial success of the eighteenth century.

The conclusion “tends to reinforce some of the better known propositions about the nature of the commercial orientation of eighteenth century trade and the making of its material context. Over the course of the Century the fortunes of different sections of society altered, but that change does not translate into complete decline.” For the Nizims, of course it meant political oblivion. However they sought to avoid financial penury with adroit resourcefulness and investment in markets. The Landed elite further entrenched themselves so did the merchants and the middle level professionals and traders. The peasants and weavers too performed well amidst the landed aristocracy but all of them were a spent force in the nineteenth century. Later the decline of the Bengal textile industry had phenomenal ramifications.

The book travels and meanders into the eighteenth century Bengal to reconsider the actual functioning with erudite and studious research of economy and with computation of maps and tables of prices and details of markets but despite devoid of a glossary does make it interesting reading. Of course, it tries to fill the gap in the historiography of Bengal but still the doubts lingers on and so does the debate on decline.

POLITICAL CULTURE AND ECONOMY IN EIGHTEENTH-CENTURY BENGAL — Networks of Exchange, Consumption and Communication: Tilottama Mukherjee; Orient Blackswan, 1/24, Asaf Ali Road, New Delhi-110002. Rs. 825.

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