India under Turkic and English Rule: Assessing the regional and community impacts of the Mughal and British Empires

A lot of the mental roadblocks in understanding the impact of Mughal and British rule in India stem from two rigid viewpoints:

  1. The Hindu Muslim binary, not realizing that both these modern categories are really collections of a large number of non inter marrying groups.
  2. Treating India as a monolith, and not realizing that differing regions of the subcontinent have had vastly different experiences and historical forces.

We will try to overcome both these limitations in the discussion here. First let us think about the British, they are more recent and easier to talk about.

Let us analyze three major regions of the Gangetic Indo-Aryan plain under British and Mughal rule. The North Western regions which were grouped under ‘Punjab’, the upper and middle Gangetic plain which were called ‘United Provinces’ and the lower Gangetic plain and delta which took the name ‘Bengal’.

From 1851 to 1951, the population of Sindh and Pakistani Punjab surged from around 10 million to 34 million, a remarkable 350% increase in 100 years. In the same time period, the United Provinces population barely increased from 47 million to 60 million. Bengal‘s population increased from around 42 million to 68 million, a moderate rise, mostly in its East.

It is quite obvious that the British liked Punjab. The relatively sparsely settled middle Indus plain (Lyallpur to Hyderabad) presented them with an ideal setting to actually build something new, rather than administer the already established. The UP struggled under British rule, and so did Bengal, especially its very settled western half. Even the capital was eventually moved out of Kolkata to Delhi. It is no surprise that the independence movement found far more acceptance in these regions than the areas that went on to comprise Pakistan.

So all in all, British rule was positive for Punjab, and especially its Muslim peasant castes like Jats (also Sikh), Arains and Gujjars, but also for trading Hindu castes like Khatris, Aroras (also Sikh) and Agarwals. It was not particularly likeable for UP Brahmins and Thakurs.

UP Muslims also found themselves in a bit of a tight corner, but a subset of them would ultimately resolve this by claiming the West Punjabi fruit ripened by their colonial masters. Bengali Hindus, although successful in finding work in the imperial bureaucracy, were excluded from lucrative and prestigious military recruitment.

Now we come to the Mughals. The Punjab of the Mughals was East Bengal. Richard Eaton has excellent work on this, showing how Mughal and Rajput governors, Hindu merchants and traders, Sufi saints all combined to expand agriculture into the Eastern Gangetic delta and bring it within the orbit of the wider Indic world. If the Taj Mahal belongs to anyone, it is the East Bengalis, who literally paid for the Empire by their surplus agricultural production on newly cultivable land and advanced textile exports.

For all the modern day Punjabi Muslim love for the Mughals, they were not terribly interested in the bulk of the region, apart from the priority of securing trade routes to Central Asia. Yes, there was impressive Persian architecture built in Lahore and Thatta, but this was done pretty much everywhere, down to Aurangabad in Maharashtra. There wasnt much of an expansion of agriculture (which awaited the British) and the population remained pretty stable.

The Sindhi Muslims go further and actually have a bit of distaste for the Mughals. This is best exemplified by the story of Shah Inayat Shaheed. There is a mela held on the date of this peasant revolutionary’s execution by Mughal king Farrukhsiyar every year.

The UP benefited from Mughal rule since it was to the Mughal Empire what England was to the British Empire. It is not very surprising that the staunch Hindu Rajputs of Rajasthan so bitterly defended this empire against the HIndu Marathas. The end of the Mughals would mean an end to both the flow of surplus from Bengal, as well as the disruption of lucrative trade routes to Central Asia. And of course, for the UP Muslims, the Mughal Empire was literally the hand that fed, and formed the bedrock of their cultural pursuits.

On the other hand, the Sindhi Muslims werent the only Muslims ambivalent about the Mughal Empire. Gujarati Shia scholar Samira Sheikh of Vanderbilt University talks about ‘Shi‘i and Messianic Challenges to Mughal Authority’ at Harvard here:

The savvy Gujarati traders had figured out that the Mughal Empire wasnt really benefiting them just like they decoded the British later.

So there we have it, India under the Turks and British was a complicated place, with some areas and groups benefiting and others suffering. The question of what these regimes did to ‘India’ is ill posed and not very illuminating.

We are left with the question of today’s India under the Constitution of India, but we will deal with that at a later time. But here’s a hint: A certain group makes up 4% of India’s population but has more than 80% of its billionaires.