March / April  2006




March/April Contents 

 Real Issues
 Malnourishment in
 South Asia


 South Asian issues
 Getting to know the
 past better



 News from elsewhere
 New animal species
 found in Indonesia

 Veggie chemical
 repairs DNA damage


 Bhera - the town that
 time forgot
- Part II

 World Bank in
 South Asia
 Grant to Afghanistan

Land management in

Urban services in


 Tollinton Market



 South Asian










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Page  4  of  7

Getting to know the past better

By Romila Thapar


Historian Romila Thapar


One of the most interesting cases, I think, is that of peasants objecting to taxation and oppression. There is a contrast in this matter between India and China. Whereas in China there is frequency of peasant revolts, in India they are rare. What is more frequent are peasant migrations or the threat of these. At that time the population was small, land was plentiful and available, and when peasant groups felt they were being oppressed by heavy taxes they could migrate and settle elsewhere. Books on state craft, warn the king not to overtax the peasants lest they migrate. The loss of revenue in the one case could mean additional revenue for the kingdom to which they might have migrated. But I think the contrast in itself is of interest as alternate ways of dealing with opposition to oppressive taxation.

There is also the question of the variation in the kinds of states, the typology of states. We tend to refer to the Mauryas, the Guptas, the Moghuls as if these states were organized and administered in the same way, and we generalize about centrally controlled uniform administration and of highly bureaucratic systems. This was not so: the Mauryan Empire is different from the Gupta kingdom, which is again different from the Moghul Empire. How did the administrations differ? Not merely in terms of designations of officers, but in terms of the structure of administration. One of the most important issues is the relation between the central authority and local authority, and taking it further, the linkage between local authority and both caste, and the predominant economy.

In other words these linkages differed in time and space. They varied in different parts of the subcontinent and during different periods. Therefore, one is inevitably looking at typologies of states. Historians distinguish between one and the other on the basis of detailed evidence.What this underlines is that the nation-states of today cannot be assumed to have existed in the past, because the nation-state is a different kind of state from that of the Mauryas, the Guptas, the Moghuls, and such like. The nation-state emerges at the time of modernization, and through the process of modernization, and therefore cannot be taken back to pre-modern times.

Economic change has also been discussed quite extensively and again covers two broad areas: the agrarian economy and the commercial economy. Discussions on the agrarian economy have moved away from the colonial reading that all land was owned by the state and there was no private property in land. It is now established that in different periods there were various categories of ownership - clan, family, state, and private ownership, often co-existing, or else one predominated over the others. There could be a predominance of state ownership and/or private ownership, but there were varieties of other forms that also existed, and these were more important in earlier times than they are now. But in terms of the economy, perhaps the most interesting change has been to bring trade into centre stage from the early first millennium AD.

It moved into centre stage as an activity of commerce and exchange but it was also important to tracing cultural cross-currents. Wherever trade goes cultural forms travel along with the traders. Often monks are the fellow-travellers of the traders. Central Asia, for example, came under the auspices, as it were, of Buddhist institutions, because as the traders went from oasis to oasis, the Buddhist monks followed and set up their monasteries and their organization. There has been the discovery of an immense amount of Buddhist art and of documents relating to trade and to Buddhism. So there are cultural cross-currents and there are, of course, migrations because together with the traders groups of people also migrated. The old idea that migration occurred largely when there were invasions has been given up. Trade is equally important in encouraging migration and new settlements. The really exciting aspect of commerce and trade has been the realization of the importance of maritime trade.


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