We could have done much better: Irfan Habib on history of governance

Renowned historian talks about governance in India – from early Dharma Sutras and Kautilya to Mughals and right down to the British

Kuldeep Kumar | March 1, 2014


Prof Irfan Habib:  ... Economic development of India was not part of the British agenda. This was the contribution of the early nationalists like Dadabhai Naoroji and Ramesh Chandra Dutta.
Arun Kumar

It is seldom the case in academics that a book is treated as a veritable classic soon after its publication. However, this is exactly what happened to The Agrarian System of Mughal India 1556-1707 when it appeared in 1963. Its author was the 32-year-old Marxist, Irfan Habib, who in no time came to be regarded as one of the foremost historians of the country.

An Atlas of the Mughal Empire: Political and Economic Maps with Detailed Notes was another masterpiece in the large body of historical writings that he has produced in the past five decades. At 83, he continues to cycle from his home to the Aligarh Muslim University’s history department, where he has spent his entire working life, barring the few years spent at Oxford pursuing his doctorate. His father, Mohammad Habib, too was one of the top nationalist historians of medieval India.

Habib is no armchair intellectual. He has often been the target of communalists of all hues for his participation in people’s movements and eloquent articulation of secular views. Recently, he came under attack once again because he publicly spoke against the demand to restore the AMU’s minority institution status. Recipient of many top honours, including Padmabhushan, Habib headed the Indian Council for Historical Research for many years and is currently professor emeritus at AMU. Kuldeep Kumar spoke to him about how the idea of governance evolved in India over several millennia and what the experience of free India has been in this regard. Excerpts from the interview:

Do we find a concern for governance in ancient India? How did the idea of governance evolve over thousands of years in our country?

Let’s first decide what governance means in this discussion. We are excluding social organisations, for example, and tribal customs and so forth as they actually go back to pre-history. We are concerned with governance of the state and the relationship of the state with its subjects or citizens. Therefore, the question arises about the state itself. When did the institution of the state arise and what were the necessary prerequisites for its evolution? The classical view is that of Gordon Childe, who heavily drew upon Marx’s and Engels’s view that the state arose only after the economy produced a surplus. This view prevailed for a long time but, with the rise of New Archaeology, it has been challenged by a contrary view influenced by ideas that are very close to the Washington Consensus.

According to this view, the production of surplus was not in fact necessary for commerce as there were exchanges between town and villages. Crafts production led to these exchanges and the state originated as a kind of protective mechanism for this commerce. I would regard it as an idealistic view of the state and economic development.

With surplus, do you mean agricultural surplus? What was the form of exchange that the contrary view talks about? Was it barter?

Yes, basically agricultural surplus. This was Gordon Childe’s notion – that with the growth of agriculture, surplus became possible and then the more powerful tribes and clans enslaved and subjugated others and drew the surplus. The other view that commerce arose from simple barter has many difficulties. If towns did not depend on surplus but on exchange with the villages, then when the villages are dug, crafts  products of the towns that went there in exchange should be found. But that is not the case. In the Indus valley civilisation villages, only pottery is found, whereas towns are full of crafts products. So, the first view is critical of the state that it arose as a result of extraction of a large part of the surplus, while the second view is that even though the state did pocket a large amount of wealth it performed a necessary function as a protective agency.

We can’t read the Indus script, so we don’t know what their concept of governance was but there was obviously a strong state. However, in Mesopotamia, where inscriptions go back to 3000 BC, we begin to find edicts of rulers in which enforcement of civil and criminal law is the business of the state. So, the first question to ask is: when did the enforcement of civil and criminal laws by the state begin in India? In the Rig Veda and the subsequent Vedic literature, this Mesopotamian concept of the state as a lawgiver is totally absent. It is the custom that sets the law. In those days, where customs ended and religion began is very difficult to say. If you look at the ruler in Rig Veda, he looks more like a plunderer than an enforcer of law.

So the legislative business was left to the Brahmanas?

That came much later with the Dharma Sutras and the Dharma Shastras. You don’t even find a reference to Manu as the lawgiver in Vedic literature. Then there is a glorification of abduction etc. So, it was very much an inter-tribal society. Historians differ on whether it was mainly a pastoral or agricultural society. At a particular stage where the Mahajanapadas (Republics) come in, you find powerful and more stable states developing. We have great difficulty in considering the state and the state of governance in that period because all traditions, mainly Buddhist ones, are of a later period.

It is true that they are confirmed in a manner by Ashokan inscriptions that are the most important set of documents from early ancient India. But whatever we can reconstruct from the Buddhist traditions about Magadha, Kosala and Avanti as strong monarchies while Lichhchhavis and Shakyas as the old type of tribal republics where monarchies are winning the day. Magadha subdues Lichhchhavis and Kosalas destroys the Shakyas (Gautam Buddha’s tribe). So these kingdoms have arisen but we don’t know how much these rulers laid down the law. But certainly by the Mauryan times, the position had changed.

So, does Kautilya’s Arthashastra offer us a theory of governance?
Before I come to Kautilya, I would like to take up the role of the Dharma Sutras in making religion or the priesthood a source of law. I think it was a development not earlier but parallel to the development of the state as one of the sources of law. You see, the Dharma Sutras come very late, practically at the time of Gautam Buddha. Even the middle Upanishads are dated to this period. So, there is this process whereby law is being formalised by two sources – the priesthood and the king. Where the caste system enters into it is again very interesting. In Magadha and Kosala in Buddha’s time, the varna system is quite strong but it is not present in the Indus Valley.

When Alexander comes here with his courtiers and historians – they have left accounts on the basis of which later historians have given us detailed accounts of that society – he finds Brahmanas in the Indus Valley but not the caste system, whereas when Megasthenes goes to Magadha during the reign of Chandragupta Maurya, he describes caste system very accurately. He talks of seven castes but actually no one knows exactly how many were there because the intermediate varnas were there too even in the Dharma Shastras and the four-fold varna system is only an imaginary picture. But, otherwise, his picture of the caste system is very clear.

So, the state is established and the priestly version of governance is that the state should enforce the caste system. But in actual fact it’s only in the early 2nd century AD that a Satavahana inscription says that the duty of a ruler is to prevent admixture of varnas or castes. It seems to me that society was creating the caste system and religion was only recognising it, rather than the other theory that Brahmanas created the caste system. And one should remember that the Satavahanas were the patrons of Buddhism.

Now, the source of law is the state and the first evidence of this is the Ashokan inscriptions. Apart from the fact that Ashokan inscriptions are the first firmly dated, written documents, there are a number of statements of Ashoka in them that relate to governance and there is a very interesting perception of indebtedness. I, as a ruler, am indebted to my subjects obviously because they pay me tax and my officers are indebted to me because I pay them salaries. Prof RS Sharma, not invoking the Ashokan inscriptions but other early texts, has already spoken about the theory of social obligation or implied social contract in ancient Indian thought. But I think the Ashokan inscriptions are the first statement of this sort and are important because they are not from a subject but from the ruler himself. So, it’s a kind of double recognition of a contract between him and his subjects and between him and his officers. The other interesting thing is that he does not attribute his ethical principles to any religion. Dhamma is what he regards as morality. It is true that in one inscription he says there are certain passages in Buddhist texts that are relevant to Dhamma but in his edicts he never says that Dhamma should be practised because Buddha laid it down.

These are secular edicts in this sense.

What about edicts that banned animal sacrifice and abolished religious fairs?

Yes, in that sense, it was interference in the Brahmanical religious practices although he claimed that he patronised the Brahmanas and the Shramanas and met them while going to Mahabodhi. However, the essential fact is that he does not attribute any of these principles of Dhamma to religion or custom. In fact, there is an edict against customs, saying that customs are not important and Dhamma alone is important. The other interesting thing is that varna and jati (caste) are not mentioned in his edicts at all as part of Dhamma. It means, according to my understanding, that since the Mauryan empire had grown to pan-Indian proportions and since the caste system was not in vogue in many regions at that time, therefore this omission was made.

Another very interesting thing that partly relates to governance is Ashoka’s consideration for people of other cultures. For instance, in his Greek edicts, he does not refer to afterlife while in his Prakrit edicts, he refers to swarga (paradise). He does not refer to nirvana because he knows that his subjects are interested in swarga but not in self-annihilation. But when he is addressing Zoroastrians – and you know that Zoroastrianism is very close to the Semitic religions; in fact, it is the originator of the Semitic religious traditions – Ashoka says that following Dhamma will help you on the day of the judgment. So, in these edicts he even recognises the day of the judgment although the Indian tradition does not do so. So, it is interesting that he has consideration for different cultures and it also comes out in Rock Edict-13 where he says that the Greeks do not have Brahmanas or Shramanas. Of course, Ashoka was a unique ruler and his notion of governance was probably not shared by others but it is still an important element in our tradition.

Then we come to Kautilya’s Arthashastra that you mentioned in your question. It is a very interesting and a very important text. However, it is not about good governance but about successful governance. (Laughs) It’s about the personal success of the ruler; other things are subordinate to this goal. It gives detailed descriptions of administration and law….

Do you mean it offers a statist view, that whatever is in the interest of the state should be done?

No, rather in the interest of the ruler. The idea that it is the purpose of the ruler to be chakravartin in Aryavarta means that he has to subdue other rulers. It shows that he is writing in conditions when there is no great empire but there is an ambition of empire-building to increase the ruler’s wealth, not for the prosperity of the subjects. This is a very important notion of the Arthashastra that prosperity of the subjects is desirable insofar as it leads to the prosperity of the ruler. And I think it is a very realistic idea and Kautilya should be praised rather than criticised for it because that is the reality. Otherwise, the ruler can do anything – he can commit murders, deceive others, destroy temples, and so on.

But there is also a legal part in which he lays down rules that are very different from those of the Manusmriti. For instance, he allows divorce which in fact used to take place in ancient Indian society under Lekha Paddhati till as late as the 12th century AD in which there is a document of divorce. Although the Shastras may say that divorce does not take place, in society, especially in the middle and lower classes, divorce did take place. So, many things that we think did not happen in ancient Indian society because the Shastras had prohibited them were in fact quite normal – if not normal, they were at least there. Take, for instance, widow remarriage: it was very normal in the Hindu society in ancient India and was also practised in most castes till very modern times. I cite these examples to show that everything that the Manusmriti says was not the law in ancient India.

So, when Kautilya allows divorce and lays down many other rules that the Manusmriti could not even think of, it does not mean that he was writing earlier. Both coexisted simultaneously and as Trautmann and others have shown, both of them are dated not earlier than the 1st or 2nd century AD, although some parts of the Arthashastra belonged to the Mauryan times. Both offer differing views on what the social order should be. Both are harsh on lower classes, but they are harsh in different ways. Manusmriti certainly does not allow that kind of wickedness to the ruler that the Arthashastra does from a statist view and considers quite normal. The moral bounds on the ruler are quite lax in Kautilya but they should be enforced on the rest of the society by the state and fines be imposed for misdemeanour. In Arthashastra the state is the enforcer of rules and laws while it is not so clear in Manusmriti.

One aspect of the Arthashastra is its detailed account of a system of administration, bureaucracy and taxation. All this is part of the system of governance.
Yes, the duties of various officials etc. and a system of taxation and punishment. The Arthashastra has many parts as it was compiled over a long period of time and these parts are quite different. The legal part is different from the bureaucratic part that refers to an obviously old bureaucratic tradition. But the legal part is concerned with fines and punishments imposed by the state. It seems Kautilya was more interested in fines than anything else (laughs). All this is missing in the Dharmashastras.

Did we have a civil society, as understood nowadays, in ancient or medieval India? How has it evolved?

The notion of civil society is fairly modern. It was earlier called public opinion but is now called civil society. It arises out of the concept of liberty. If the concept of liberty as pronounced in the French Revolution is not present, then public opinion or civil society would also be very restricted. And then, of course, the rise of the middle class is also a factor. So, if the concept of liberty in the modern sense is not there, I don’t understand how we can look for civil society in ancient or medieval times. But this is not to say that different opinions did not exist. In fact, both in India and other countries in ancient and medieval times, there are many instances of different views of the state as well.

When I read Bana’s Harshcharitam, even in translation one feels that when he is praising the ruler, he is in fact criticising him. For instance, the death of Prabhakarvardhan – as he is dying, he calls on his slave girls one by one and they rush to do this and that. And one feels that there are two Banas, one is praising while the other is quietly criticising the way the ruler uses his maid servants or slave girls. Or look at Alberuni and his Kitab al-Hind where he says that Mahmud of Ghazni destroyed so much that the Hindus won’t tolerate the Muslims. He is the only author to say so. No other contemporary source has said this. In fact, in Rajatarangini, Kalhan thinks it was foolish of the Kashmiris to go and fight the Mahmud of Ghazni. Or, when Alberuni says that people should not question astrology because as it is the rulers do not support science and mathematics, and if there is no astrology they would cease to support astronomy too.

So, every society has its critics but I don’t think this can be called public opinion or civil society.

Civil society has many voices and one can’t always be very sure of its impact on the polity. Look at Thailand. The entire middle class there wants to overthrow a democratically elected government and is openly expressing its views against democracy itself. It is being asked how the vote of an illiterate peasant can be equal to that of an educated person.

What about rulers like Akbar or Shershah Suri? Did they bring about a change in the notion of governance?

Akbar is perhaps the first sovereign who begins to question, for various reasons, some social ideas that had been very deeply established. For example, although it is laughable for a man who had 300 lawfully wedded wives to say that monogamy should be the ideal for his subjects. One god, one wife – that’s what he said. Or, that child marriages should be prohibited. Now, you know that both the Hindus and the Muslims love child marriages. The Muslims do this because of the Prophet’s precedent with Ayesha. But Akbar prohibited child marriage. This was criticised by contemporary historian Badauni who said that it helped fill the pockets of officials who allowed it for a bribe. He was against slavery and prohibited slave trade and later on freed a number of his slaves whom he called chelas.

And, then his views on religion and religious tolerance. This was not secularism, or if it was, it was of the Radhakrishnan variety in which the state allows all religions to flourish and also to influence it to some degree. But secularism really means that the state maintains its distance from religion. Even then, it was very important because I have not seen any other ruler of the Islamic world or the Christian world at that time taking such a position. Therefore, a view of governance, in which some form of social equity is enforced despite whatever religions may say, is an important development.

There was another important concept which follows from it. It was a peculiar formula that remained popular with Mughal rulers from Akbar up to even Aurangzeb in the beginning in which they said that just as God lets sunrays fall on all people, similarly a ruler’s bounty must fall on all people, irrespective of their religion. In fact, when Aurangzeb was trying to gather Rajput support in the war of succession, he invoked this doctrine. So, you see, in this way, Akbar does make important contribution to the concept of governance. His prohibition of sati is another important thing and we are told by European travellers that Mughal officers would try their best to persuade women to not commit sati. You see, the law was that the woman should not be forced to commit sati. So, the family members used to take the women to the officers to take the permission for sati. In fact, this prohibition was invoked by the Peshwas too in their dominion.

But apart from this, the fact should not be forgotten – and I will here return to surplus – that as state power increased in India, land tax actually became equivalent in a large part to rent. In discussions among economists in England from Adam Smith onwards up to Marx, the tax-rent equivalence in India was particularly interesting. James Mill and John Stuart Mill in his earlier writings said that Indian peasants did not pay tax because what they paid was rent. So, they were untaxed.

This was a very important historically established measure that goes back up to the 13th century. One does not know whether it was in vogue even earlier because we do not have sufficient information. RS Sharma and DD Kosambi in their discussions of Indian feudalism do not consider this point although they say taxation increased.

When you have tax-rent equivalence, there are certain important implications for governance. The peasantry was hard-pressed by the state, not by individual landlords all the time but by the state. Secondly, the village comes under the state in a manner not possible earlier. You mentioned Shershah, who said village headmen were responsible for this. So, obviously, if you are taking so much land revenue, you have to administer the villages to a certain degree. You of course make concessions to the upper peasantry and zamindars. So, this tax-rent equivalence has implications for extension of governance. Whether it was good or bad is another issue. And this is sometimes not recognised by writers like Burton Stein who talk about ‘segmented sovereignty’ because even Vijayanagar empire had this tax-rent equivalence. So, it is not proper to talk of ‘limited’ or ‘segmented’ sovereignty even for South India.

What about the British? They introduced new concepts of governance, did they not?

When we come to the colonial times, it is obvious that we are dealing with two things – the legacy of the previous regimes and the new ideas of the state. The legacy is clear in the way land tax was managed. After Permanent Settlement in which the zamindars were recognised as full proprietors and its failure to give the British sufficient revenues, they shifted to the old view that land revenue and rent are equivalent and should remain so. In this sense, the colonial state was different from the state in England where it was not the landlord.

Was this state of affairs responsible for the rise of the theory of ‘Oriental Despotism’ because the state held all the land, even if theoretically?

Yes, that’s right. This is the basis and to that extent, even though one would dislike the word ‘despotism’, it represented the reality. So the revenues that the British drew from India were on the old pattern. The second interesting thing was that they also inherited the traditions of religious tolerance. I was looking at their rule in Ireland and the kind of intolerance they showed towards the Catholics down to 1800 was remarkable. The Catholics could not buy land, so 75 percent of the population had only 5 percent of the land. The Catholics could not hold offices and indeed there were so many limitations even on their education...

And when the British came to India, the East India Company showed religious tolerance and did not even allow Christian missionaries to function. They wouldn’t allow missionaries until 1813 to come to India on their ships. These two were the legacies of the older regimes. There was no such tolerance in England. But here, look at the Mughals, the Marathas, and others. They had soldiers and officers of every religion. So, the British saw how the earlier regimes functioned here and did the same. They continued with the same judicial system and retained the same qazis. Warren Hastings got Manusmriti as well as Hidaya translated and said courts should enforce Hindu and Muslim laws and so on.

But then changes occurred because all this is against the concept of a modern state because the modern state is the lawgiver. It decides to what extent custom and religion should be followed. It was there earlier too because the hands of the thieves were not cut off under the Nizamat and nobody in the Mughal times was killed for adultery as required by the Muslim law. So, it was quite recognised that certain religious laws could not be implemented. But with the British, this notion of state-made laws and even the religious laws enforceable so far as the state recognised them becomes important and begins to take roots. Of course, it comes first with Sati Regulation Act. You could say that they were continuing with the earlier regimes but now even death penalty was prescribed for colluding in committing sati. Female infanticide was made into a crime and slavery was abolished without compensation. Permission had to be sought for changing religion without affecting inheritance.

In 1888, when Dufferin ordered enquiries into poverty in India – the only volume that was published was on UP which was known as North Western Provinces those days – the officers reported that wherever they went, they found that the poor people were very happy whenever a daughter was born and very depressed when a son was born because the daughter when married would bring a bride price of Rs 10 or 20 but when the son would marry they would have to pay the price. And the daughter begins working when she is barely three or four years old while the son doesn’t work. So, the conditions of female infanticide for the poor were not present. They were only for the bigger zamindars.

Although it was present in parts, the wholesale concept of civil law and criminal law being laid down by the state, and not by religion or custom, is a British contribution through the modern idea of the state. For their own reasons, they unified the economy of India through the railway system although India paid a lot for this. But here, one must remember that the British concept of governance did not include development of Indian economy. The concept that the state can develop the economy came through practice and not the ideology of the French Revolution. The state started encouraging the development of science and technology so that France could develop its economy.

The notion that the state can develop the economy through its taxation policy came later. But economic development of India was not part of the British agenda. This was the contribution of the early nationalists like Dadabhai Naoroji and Ramesh Chandra Dutta.

What is the record of free India in the field of governance?

(Laughs) Certainly much better as compared to the British, who were just not interested in the development of Indian economy. The constitution has given us a firm basis for governance, (and) affirmative action taken by the state in various spheres is a case in point. We could have done much better. But the concept that the state can intervene in every domain is at least firmly established.

(This interview appeared in the February 1-15, 2014 anniversary special issue of the magazine)

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