With the decline of the Mughal Empire, the eighteenth century in India was characterized by two critical transitions which changed the structure of power and initiated important social and economic reconfigurations. This transition is divided into two periods of different turn of events: i) the transition in the first half of the century from the Mughal political economy to regional political orders. ii) The transition in the period following the battle of Plassey (1757) and Buxar(1764) in the polity, society and economy as the English East India Company steered its way to a position of political prominence in the North India. Historians debate not only the nature of change in the eighteenth century but also the implications for the establishment of early colonial rule in India.
The political demise of the Mughal Empire was the most important development of the first half of the 18th century. Among the historians who continue to debate the causes of Mughal decline; opinions are divided among the ones who view the decline as a consequence of economic crisis and exploitation by the ruling class and the ones who regard the political turmoil in terms of regional assertiveness triggered by economic prosperity.
Some historians see the century being characterized by economic and social reconfigurations that resulted in the emergence of local regional powers. Opposed to this interpretation is the argument that imperial political collapse initiated a process of economic and social decay as well. These two divergent positions form the ‘Dark age versus economic prosperity debate on the eighteenth century.
Second set of arguments lie around the late 18th century transition in polity, society and economy of India as the English East India Company acquired political supremacy. Opinions are sharply split over the roots of early colonial rule in the indigenous economy and society. Some economic historians argue that the colonial rule was a determining economic as well as political disjunction. This view is contested by the regional studies based on local records which show that the English company was sucked into the vibrant indigenous political economics.
First half of the eighteenth century: Dark Age versus Economic Prosperity
The 18th century emerged as politically chaotic and crisis prone period. From the 1960 onwards, some economic historians explained mughal decline and the consequent social unrest in the fiscal terms. The downfall of the empire was also viewed as a cultural failure, referring to the rise of Europe in the period 1500-1700 as a centre of world commerce.
Satish Chandra held the structural flaws in the working of the Mughal institutions of jagir and masab responsible for the fiscal crisis of the late seventeenth century. Shifting his focus to the economic aspects of the politico-administrative imperial crisis, Satish Chandra argues that as the jagirs became few and relatively infertile, the discrepancy between the estimated revenue and the actual yields intensified.
Irfan Habib argued that the high rate of land revenue demanded by Delhi caused large scale rural exploitation,leading to peasant migration and rebellion which resulted in an agricultural crisis.
Alongside, there also existed alternate views which moved beyond towards the politico-economic engineering by the Mughal functionaries. These can be traced in the works of historians like Herman Goetz on 18th century music and architecture and in the American anthropologist Bernard S. Cohn’s study of Banares.
The regional economies based on shifting patterns of trade movement of mercantile capital from centre to periphery, war, pillage, and political maneuvering by regional elites- were highlighted in the works of Ashin Gupta, B.R. Grover, Karen Leonard, Steward Gordon and Richard B. Barnett.Stein formulates the notion of military fiscalism as a revenue extractive and distributive process involving the military.
Both these studies indicate the continued survival and growth of social and economic referents of the empire even when the edifice of its revenue extraction structure had collapsed; architecture, music fiscal institutions and social groups emerged as the new fulcrum of the regional state building.
Most of the historians till 1970 perceived the 18th century as simply a period of transition marking the fall of Mughals and the emergence of the British rule. But the regional level changes in this period of transition provoked consideration among historians working on Mughal India as well. This historiography also saw the emergence of regional outfits such as the Marathas, the Sikhs and the Satnamis. The mushrooming of regional politics in the 18th century was very evident; referring to the north Indian cities of Bengal and Awadh. The evidence from most of these regions indicates economic realignments that ensured the dissociation of the regions from imperial control.
The second half of the eighteenth century: the Transition to Colonialism
The late 18th century was characterized by constant political flux. The lurking British threat became a reality after the Battle of Buxar in 1764. The defeat of Shaja-ud-Daulah, the Nawab of Awadh, paved the way for British expansion in the North India. However the most contentious issue of the second half of the 18th century has been the transition to the early colonial rule. This has provoked discussion regarding the Company’s successful rise to political dominance, the impetus behind European expansion, as well as the impingement of this transition on the changing relationship between state and society in the colonial India.
At one level, the early colonial state is seen as being shaped by the referents of indigenous political economics. On the other, these works question the general conclusions that often eclipsed the critical role of the Company state in introducing changes in Indian society and economy.
The older accounts of the British conquest view the English company as being constrained to transform itself into a territorial power because of the insecurity caused by the collapse of the Mughal Empire and the emergence of a rival European threat to its trading areas from the French. Others attribute the move towards colonization to an increase in production and trade in the European markets, which in turn led to high demand for the Indian goods and a drain of bullion from Europe; access to the Indian revenue through political interference thus became an indispensable means by which the British could dissolve this fiscal imbalance.
However, a later work of Marshall suggests that British private trade undermined the stability of the Indian regional states and thus has indirect influence on the company’s expansion. Baylay, Marshall, Stein, Washbrook and Das Gupta through their regional studies on agriculture, merchants, European trade, and the military and legal dimensions of company rule attribute its success to the remarkable ways in which it grated itself on the networks of indigenous economy and infrastructure.
Thus we can come to a conclusion that the objective of the company’s drive to political sovereignty was to ultimately erode the military and political power of the regional polities and circumcise their authority even as it continued to derive from the military and political traditions.
With the decline of the Mughal Empire, we saw a rising of several regional centers of power. With time, historians debated on the upheaval of the society after the imperial Mughal decline and the upcoming of a new emerging power of the East India Company in the middle of the century. This European company was seen to have deeper implications. We see how the eighteenth century was a remarkable piece of history and was interpreted by the historians from two angels- one set of historians arguing that the decline of the Mughal Empire in the first half of the 18th century was catastrophic resulting in ‘chaos and anarchy’.
However the other set of historians followed a region-centric approach and emphasized that though the empire declined, the local regions became vibrant centres of the socio-economic activities and there was a gradual continued expansion in the Indian economy despite the political problems and the decline of the Mughal Imperial rule. This process was not substantially disrupted under the British rule, though numerous changes did emerge which subjected the Indian economy to unprecedented financial burdens. However, we can thus very well conclude that the eighteenth century was a period of major transition in the history of late medieval and early modern India.