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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.