Counter factual

Let’s assume that throughout history; the typical South Asian is a Shudra peasant from UP.

Would the welfare of this hypothetical individual have been better off today if:

(1.) there had been no British rule; i.e the Mughals & other powers (Sikh, Maratha, Hyderabad) scrape through to the modern age. No English language & no railways.

(2.) there had been no Turkish incursion; India remained under Hindu & indigenous rule through to the present day. No Islam, no Taj & no biryani.

(3.) finally if Ashoka had successful imposed Buddhism throughout the Sub-continent and replaced Hinduism & the attendant caste system. No Vedas, no caste.

Of course virtually all Pakistanis would settle on number 1, Hindutva on number 2 but number 3 is the one that really intrigues me; maybe the dwindling Nehruvians would have agreed to that?

In the end Gandhi’s composite approach; to somehow try and blend all histories in a vaguely Saffron-lite mix won out but since 90% of Brown Pundit discussion goes back to these forks in history (especially the Muslim one), it’s interesting to contemplate it from a different angle.

13 thoughts on “Counter factual”

  1. we know with problems in Islam today, the answer is not true for 1 .

    As for Buddhism, it has not shown aptitude for excellence in mathematical or scientific point of view, in medicine to some degree but thats it, I dont know of single buddhist mathematician of note in all of history( I would like to know of such people), there were jain mathematicians, hindus, even muslims, christians, hellenic, chinese,babylonian. Then comes to having coherent views for legitimacy of violence. As it so happened, Ashoka brought the biggest empire in all of Indian subcontinent history to an end and collapsed very soon. So they would have fallen prey to someone else .

  2. Perhaps a 4th option could be if Akbar’s Din-i-ilahi would have been more successful (inclusive of commoners as well as the learned?), and Dara Shikoh later prevailed against Aurangzeb. Many latter-day Nehruvians like Tharoor have lamented about Dara’s fate.

    I am not well placed to comment on how historically likely this scenario was but I would prefer it to any of the 3 you cite. India in the late 17th-century was well-placed for an ideology that would simultaneously –
    (1) Indianize the faith (which was a big deal for them) of the empire,
    (2) Integrate the native high culture (Brahminism) into the imperial cosmology, which along with #1 would nativize the empire over time,
    (3) Rid the native culture of its original faultline (caste), and
    (4) Heal India of the old (caste) and new (religion) faultlines that were ripe for colonial exploitation in the subsequent years.

  3. Why would there have been no English language and no railways in scenario 1? Countries that were never colonized did eventually adopt Western technology as they felt necessary. People all around the globe are now learning English. The only difference would have been that the colonial encounter would not have happened.

    I think in many ways a decentralized group of different states is more natural for the subcontinent. You would have had for example, the Sikhs in Punjab, the Nizam in Hyderabad, etc. It was really the British (and to some extent the Mughals) who made India into one unitary country.

    Scenario one also seems to imply no Partition, no Pakistan and no Bangladesh. The various princes would just have ruled all across the subcontinent. Partition was arguably an effect of the British making religion an extremely salient category when it came to political representation.

    1. But was English language good for the subcontinent; what if Hindustani right now was the absolutely lingua Franca of the region..

      1. I think if we are talking about the scenario in which India was a bunch of decentralized states, there would be no one lingua franca. Hyderabad under the Nizams would still have Urdu as the official language. Punjabi would be the official language under the Sikhs. “Hindustani” or Hindi/Urdu would be the lingua franca in a large part of North India, depending on the local rulers. The South would have its own languages.

        Fluency in English is a good thing, no doubt. I think we are just talking about whether it was worth being colonized in order to learn English (I would say no). But many countries with no history of being colonies are also encouraging their citizens to learn English for greater global competitiveness.

        1. I think the native lingua Franca would have been much stronger if not for the Brits; the Sikhs were sandwiched between the Afghans, Persians and other Muslim powers further south. I don’t think Punjabi would have totally replaced any other language in such a scenario..

          1. Punjabi would not have replaced any other language but it was the court language under Ranjit Singh (if I am not mistaken). I think it was the British who decided that Urdu was going to be the administrative language of Punjab after their annexation of the kingdom.

            In a scenario in which local rulers continued to rule various parts of India, Punjabi would probably have remained the official language of that particular area.

  4. One of the challenges in exploring the counter-factual is to get a feel for the spirit of each generation, if not the age more broadly. For those who see historic timelines showing millenia long inclines or declines of particular social parameters, colonialism was mostly a consequence of societal decay not the cause of it. Even the Mughals, though refined aesthetically, were further from marks of civilisational vigour like mathematical discovery, philosophy and logic than Mahmud of Ghazni who was a patron of the al-beruni, ferdosi and others, and closely acquainted with the high culture of khorasan. The same could be said if we compare Vijayanagara in the 15th century with the Rashtrakutas/Cholas/Palas of an earlier period.
    To play the hypothetical game however, there’d have been a strong chance that the the maritime peripheral of the subcontinent, and states leveraging those advantages in the age of mercantilism, would have seen the Marathas, Mysore and a successor state in Bengal grow powerful. The Marathas likely subduing Hindustan and pushing the Afghans out of Punjab as well. Not sure if what we know of as Sikh power in Punjab would have been able to assert itself without the power vacuum the east india company created for them. The whole question of urdu, punjabi, and the consolidation of hindustani dialects changes dramatically if by 1800 the peshwas/marathas and durrani dynasty have a free run. How much longer would the emperor be maintained as a symbol? how much churn in the civil bureaucracy and does persian retain its standing longer at the expense of urdu? Does a deccani administrative caste get imported? We know of the “great firm” theory of imperial decline that has the powerful native banking concerns divest from important echelons of the mughal polity, but would european finance exist in this alternative history and how would they distort the power balance from trade and investment alone?

  5. UP’s population in 1881 was 47 million. To put that into perspective, the population of the Ming dynasty in China was 60 million over the entire empire.

    From 1881 to 1951, UP’s population only increased to 60 million, which seems to suggest that colonial rule did not have a major penetrative impact in these areas, outside of course the major cities and cantonment towns. Contrast this with Punjab, whose population more than quadrupled under the same Raj, and Sindh, whose population went from 1.8 million to 5.1 million.

    Coming to the Mughal Empire, its impact was large in the urban areas, as is evidenced by architecture, language and the demographic makeup. But demographics and language again suggest that its impact in the rural areas was not great. The rural population in UP is overwhelmingly Hindu (nearly 90% even in 2011 despite decades of higher Muslim fertility) and the languages like Braj, Awadhi and Bhojpuri do not show as much Perso-Arabic influence as the derivatives of Khariboli do.

    I seriously doubt the UP peasant was a significant category in the time of Ashoka, when Indian civilization was really centered in Bihar and Bengal, and remained so for many centuries.

    So all in all, I doubt that any of these entities really had a major impact on the UP peasant directly.

    The entity that did have a significant impact has been the modern day Republic because it has had all penetrative instruments of intrusion, and because the UP peasant is the single largest category of voter in it. A Dalit woman was voted in as CM in the 2000s, and the tectonic impact of this will become more and more apparent in the years to come.

  6. To get a sense of the life of a UP peasant, see this answer from Balaji Vishwanathan. He is talking about rural TN, but rural UP wont be very different when it comes to certain points.

    3. Politics has a far bigger role in your life. On a nice afternoon, one of the local politicians gone missing. Within two hours, his party blocked all the roads and vandalized all shops (both belonging to the opponent DMK party and neutrals). Another day, there were this crazy party that chopped all the trees for a protest and blocked the roads. We were far away from home and could not reach home for 3 days and stayed at a friend’s place (there were no hotels in rural India).

    4. If you are a government worker, you can weave a huge power on people’s lives. My father headed the only government bank in the surrounding 20-30 villages and that meant a lot of power. Everyone in the village knew me and there were far too many sycophants. People would randomly come to our home (the biggest home in the village and provided by the bank) for petty disputes among them. If you are kind of person that person enjoys those kind of power plays, rural India is great. My dad loathed the corrupted system and moved to the national capital at the end of the mandatory 5 year service.

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