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Monday, October 18, 2021

‘Cannot keep eyes closed to capitalism,economic history’

With India’s GDP slowing down from its eight-plus per cent gallop and dialogue on meltdown finding its way to dinner tables,the average Indian has taken to observing the staggered capitalist machinery at work.

Written by V Shoba | New Delhi |
March 18, 2009 12:33:13 am

With India’s GDP slowing down from its eight-plus per cent gallop and dialogue on meltdown finding its way to dinner tables,the average Indian has taken to observing the staggered capitalist machinery at work. Historians,though,are largely loath to admit the role of economics in the story of civilisations,preferring to generalise on social behaviour instead.

Its is one of the reasons that made eminent historian and professor at the Aligarh Muslim University Irfan Habib’s lecture — titled ‘Economics and the Historians’— doubly rousing.

Speaking in the Krishna Bharadwaj Memorial Lecture at the Jawaharlal Nehru University,Habib lampooned historians’ general disregard for economics. He observed that the study of our economic histor— which grew out of the context of the British exploitation of Ind—a ¿ remained relevant through the 1950s and 60s,only to fade away in recent times.

Proving wrong French anthropologist Louis Dumont’s claim that India has no economic history,Habib talked of how the idea of surplus,as popularised by the theory of marginal utility,goes back to 17th Century India — in 1693-94,Emperor Aurangzeb’s officer Bhimsen had noted that large temples were built in South India because crop productivity was high and the cost of subsistence low in that part of the country. So even though rulers across India might have been equally god-fearing,since a large amount of tax could be collected in South India,temples came up in large numbers there. “Bhimsen assumed the surplus to be equal to tax,” Professor Habib said.

Rejecting the theory that Indus Valley towns grew out of free market exchange,Habib discussed the idea of forcible extraction of surplus from the masses,which led to the formation of a class-based society. Nor did towns come up as a result of an ‘Indus ideology’,as postulated by Gregory L Possehl,he added. “If you think cities grew out of an ideology,it’s the first step towards the lunatic asylum,” Habib jested.

The caste system,too,was an economic construct,designed to increase the surplus by depressing the level of subsistence of the producers. The surplus thus obtained went into the pockets of the ruling elites.

Lauding Utsa Patnaik and Amiya Kumar Bagchi for their accounts of colonial India’s economic history,Habib recounted the ‘tributes’ India paid to the British economy. Indian cloth was used to pay for a third of Britain’s slave trade in the 18th Century,when 6 million slaves were transported across the Atlantic to Britain. Habib argued that neither Cambridge scholars nor subaltern theorists have really acknowledged the economic cost of colonialism.

“The depression has shown that closing our eyes to capitalism and to economic history will no longer be possible,” Habib said. The crisis that Marx saw approaching in 1873 is here again. And history will not be history without the economics in it.

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