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Jul 22, 2004 9:37 pm

India and the End of Economic History

In this week's Economic & Political Weekly, is a must-read article by Tirthankar Roy entitled, Economic History: An Endangered Discipline. I don't know how long that link will stay, so I will briefly describe Roy's argument.
Roy begins by noting that economic history which once held sway in Indian historiography has found itself battling irrelevance after the 90s. It no longer commands any interest in research universities or public policy, which is in marked contrast to the position it enjoyed in Nehru's India. Roy blames the dominance of"old school" establishment of historians who pushed their particular paradigm of Indian past to the exclusion of all others. When that paradigm failed, it took with it the entire field.
Roy doesn't name names but I'd venture that the"old school" is represented by Dutt, Chaudhri, Gadgil, Naoroji and, of course, Irfan Habib - who does come in for some ribbing. Their idea of Indian past is termed the"imperialist-underdevelopment axis" - which operated on the belief that there is a sharp contrast between pre-colonial and colonial Indian economies:
The old school thesis was that the poor rate of growth was manmade. Colonial policies and the market economy that emerged repressed Indian growth potentials. This approach held that the Indian economy on the eve of colonialism had the potentials to experience rapid economic growth, but those potentials were destroyed by colonialism. It believed in a broad identity of interest between colonialism and the local economic elite, and held that alliance responsible for retardation of the Indian economy in the colonial period.

The paradigm thus tied markets to the centrality of the political state. The nationalist historians championed this vision which was picked up by the Nehru state as public policy. In post-Independence India, Roy states,
Economists and historians agreed that markets and the open economy were instruments that needed to be restrained, if used at all. Historians thereby gave meaning to a regime that intervened heavily to restrain market forces and international relations.

The market reforms of the 90s (led in no small part by the current PM Manmohan Singh) changed public policy and that change relegated the underpining historical narrative to dusty bookshelves. In the last part of his analysis, Roy proposes to shift the focus of any history of India's economic past away from politics to structures. This would stress continuity of local and global patterns of change and reform without being beholden to political changes. Capital, labor and risk will be central to this new paradigm.
In a sense, Roy is making a case for making economic history relevant again. The death-knell on the old school was rung not just by reforms of the 90s but by the rise of the postcolonial schools of historiography which changed the focus of Indian past towards cultural and social practices.
The article raises one fundamental question. What happens to scholarship after it goes out of vogue or becomes discredited? And how does one actual do history without falling into that trap? It is a question with far greater relevance than just economic history. How is the current breed of Indian historian to read the Orientalists in a post-nationalist framework? What about the subalternists who knocked so many off their horses, and are facing their own good night? Speaking of myself, one of the reasons I have always preferred histories of process and ideas is that I do not see them contorting evidence to fit a particular mold. Trendy things frighten me.

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Oscar Chamberlain - 7/23/2004

I think there is a considerable difference between being out of vogue and being discredited. The Dunning school of interpretation of Reconstuction has been discredited because it was based on frankly racist assumptions. These assmptions permeated the explaining of events. Other interpretations, however, have moves in and out of vogue for a range of reasons without ever having been--and without ever having deserved--discredited.

If one's problem is simply being out of vogue, living a long time is the best antedote. Good interpretations return, though sometimes in altered form.

Jonathan Dresner - 7/22/2004

If you're concerned about your scholarship being relevant after whatever trend you're riding crests and falls, make sure that your research and writing is data-rich, rather than theory-heavy. It helps, too, if you are breaking new ground in terms of your topic and bigger questions, rather than revisiting an old question (a sure sign that you've hitched to a falling star). Then, even if you turn out to be idiotically wrong, people still have to read you and cite you as the first person to address the question.

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