Why Did India Fall Behind?

Kaveh Yazdani’s India, Modernity, and the Great Divergence is a fascinating exploration of why India fell behind the Western world in the 18th and 19th centuries.

It’s a question that everyone from imperialists to freedom fighters, historians to school students, has asked: How and why did India, one of the world’s wealthiest regions, fall behind Europe during the 18th and 19th centuries? In this intriguing study of two Indian states, Kaveh Yazdani comes up with a more nuanced picture of this crucial period than ever before.

Most studies of this Great Divergence fall within two broad categories: the Eurocentrists and the Reverse-Orientalists. Eurocentrists give all the credit to internal European factors, stressing their ideological descent from Greece and Rome, while neglecting its interaction with the rest of the world. Reverse Orientalists present India as being highly dynamic and on the verge of its own industrial breakthrough, until European colonialism derailed it from its transition to modernity.

Yazdani’s approach, drawing on world history, Marxism, and Postcolonial thought, aims to bridge these two. Interestingly, he argues that many regions of the world at different periods of time exhibited features that we consider to be ‘modern’ – from early capitalist modes of industrial iron production in Song China to Indian trade with Southeast Asia at the turn of the first millennium; from the cosmopolitanism of the Mughal Empire to the scientific advancements of the Abbasid Caliphate.

In this view, specific modernities and transitions across the world, across time, gradually culminated in a capitalist ‘late modernity’ by the 1830s. The most important period in this global transition was ‘middle modernity’ – a period ranging from the 17th to the 19th centuries – where interactions between different regions on an unprecedented scale led to a complex set of cultural, economic and political transitions. These definitions, freed from region-based value judgements, allow a clear, unbiased study to take shape.

This study of India’s middle modernity focusses on two states: Mysore and Gujarat. Mysore, under the reforming Haidar Ali and Tipu Sultan, had one of India’s most powerful and modern militaries, with a highly centralized state keeping a tight rein on its merchants. Gujarat, in contrast, was highly decentralized, with powerful and independent merchant guilds. Using a massive array of material, Yazdani proceeds to analyse everything from the means of production to militaries, religious relations, the status of women, and political structure. What emerges is a compelling, complex portrayal of India’s transformation and its interaction with Europe.

The process of ‘Etatisation’, under which Tipu Sultan destroyed the older feudal structures of Mysore in favour of a bureaucratic state under his personal control, allowed Mysore to rapidly become one of India’s most prosperous kingdoms. Its military technology was scarcely inferior to Europe’s, thanks to Tipu’s whole-scale adoption of European drill and military advisors. However, Mysore was still only ­semi-modern – with many of Europe’s more pragmatic ideological measures, such as secularism and free trade, being neglected.

Gujarat, meanwhile, was too decentralized to effectively shift away from older caste and labour relations. Many of its wealthiest traders were unable to compete with European shipping, and some merchant communities (such as the Parsis) managed to become more successful only by cooperating with European powers.

Many aspects of the study, however, are hampered by the absence of reliable data to quantify economic growth. As a result, Yazdani is forced to use conservative estimates based on unabashedly Orientalist estimates by British surveyors. In addition, many of his more interesting observations, such as the surprisingly progressive employment figures for Mysorean women – are difficult to generalise to larger regions. Interestingly, he also observes, on the lines of Jamil Ragep, that barely 5% of available scientific writings in Arabic and Persian have been studied so far. Perhaps the emergence of more literature from the period will help add further details to the picture, but Yazdani deserves high credit for his exhaustive and rigorous analysis of available sources. While the lay reader might find his tone a little too academic for comfort, the book is well worth the learning curve.

Most of the features that we have come to associate with late modernity, such as capitalist production, scientific advances, a consumer-driven economy and a middle class were effectively unable to emerge owing to India’s socio-cultural factors, such as the caste system. On the other hand, the Indian economy was indeed highly prosperous, and a further transition to modernity cannot be ruled out if, as Yazdani points out, Indian rulers had cooperated in reducing European interference in their internal affairs and markets. The British takeover of both Mysore and Gujarat led almost immediately to a destruction of nascent industries and plummeting agricultural prosperity, which were only partially restored by the 20th century.

So, what explains the Great Divergence between India and Europe? Not, as Eurocentrists would put it, the legacy of Greece and Rome. Afro-Asia played a considerable role in fuelling the capitalist development that allowed Europe to reach late modernity. At the same time, Indian authors who argue that Europe alone was responsible for stifling India’s economy neglect the factors that were already holding up its transition from middle to late modernity.

In conclusion, India, Modernity, and the Great Divergence is a fascinating contribution to World History, and provides a valuable insight into a period that is often studied with a colonial or post-colonial bias. Yazdani’s approach is pathbreaking, and lays the ground for more work on the economy of pre-colonial India. While sometimes a little academic in tone, his contribution to the field is worth a read for the nuance it adds to this pivotal period.