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India and the Indian Ocean World

Published : Saturday, 15 June, 2024 at 12:00 AM  Count : 627

India and the Indian Ocean World

India and the Indian Ocean World

In India and the Indian Ocean World: Trade and Politics, the author Ashin Das Gupta charts how trade withered away in Malabar and Surat…

Recently the Press Trust of India put out a story saying that in 2023-24 India had a trade deficit with nine of its largest trading partners, including, hold your breath, microscopic Singapore. Some of us in this newspaper had a very long discussion on this - without becoming much wiser about why India is so bad at exporting.

Later in the day, quite by chance, I came across a book I had read long ago. It is called India and the Indian Ocean World: Trade and Politics. The author is Ashin Das Gupta.

It is great a pity that we Indians have a habit of forgetting our true scholars, especially if they don tom-tom themselves.

 Das Gupta was one of those. He was a historians historian, with a PhD from Cambridge, and he chose to focus on Indian foreign trade as before the British displaced the Mughal empire. He died in 1998 at the young age of just 65.
The last post he held was as vice-chancellor of Vishwa Bharati University in Santiniketan. Before that he served as the director of the National Museum in Kolkata. In 2004, OUP published two of his works in a single volume and thats the one I rediscovered on my bookshelf.

The book has a Foreword by PJ Marshall and an Introduction by another masterful historian, Irfan Habib. Their admiration for Das Gupta drips from every word because he challenged the received wisdom with the help of painstaking research into the period.

He sifted through the documents of those long gone years and concluded that the reality was far more complex than the simple versions being propagated.

There were two major works that he undertook in this regard: a study of the trade, business and politics on the Malabar coast, modern day Kerala; and Surat, which under the Mughals was like, say, Shanghai is today to China.

Malabars peppery fate
Malabar was all about pepper, says Das Gupta. The Europeans had discovered it and wanted ever increasing quantities. Kerala grew lots of it and that attracted the Dutch.

They tried military means in 1741 to capture the region but the Travancore king, MarthandaVarma, defeated them in a major naval battle. Then they started behaving themselves and trading like anyone else. Trade grew by leaps and bounds because other Europeans joined in, too.

So what went wrong? Two things mainly, according to Das Gupta. One was the creation by Marthanda Verma of a state monopoly over pepper. The other was the capture of Calicut by Tipu Sultan who also created his own monopoly over it.

The result was a gradual withering away of the trade as fewer ships came. The rajah and sultan killed the goose that had laid their golden egg. Moral of the story: don nationalise, don monopolise.

Surat withers
The fate of Surat offers an object lesson to modern Indian governments: don tax business till its pips begin to squeak. But this is what seems to have happened.

The declining Mughal empire, or rather its provincial governors, became increasingly rapacious after the death of Aurangzeb in 1707. After a few decades of this, and the collapsing law and order, the traders of Surat were desperate for succour because simultaneously the political disorder in Iran and Yemen were leading to huge trade disruption that left the traders of Surat poorer. So they had to face lower income and higher taxes, which has parallels in India after 1955.

In the event, the law and order became so bad that the traders turned to the East India Company which guaranteed security.

But the EIC had already decided to develop Bombay and gradually Surat lost its importance.

Das Gupta drew a very large conclusion from the events of 1710-1750. He said it wasn the Europeans but the Asians themselves who caused the decline of both Malabar and Surat. The Left was predictably annoyed but the evidence could not be easily refuted.

Disputes over interpretation aside, this is a beautifully written book, really delightful to read. PJ Marshall, a renowned historian of South Asia, says Das Gupta wrote with the careful structure of Agatha Christie and the zany world view of PG Wodehouse of human frailties. Spot on.


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