Reflections on Nadir Shah’s exploits in India

By srikanth 21 Comments

Last year marked the 280th anniversary of Nadir Shah’s invasion of the city of Delhi – an event as catastrophic as the invasion of the city by Timur in 1398.

It is worth reflecting on this remarkable event in early 18th century – an episode that underscores the perils of a weak state.

Source : wiki images

State of the Empire in the 1730s

What’s remarkable about this invasion is that it happened barely 32 years after the death of Aurangzeb in 1707 – a time when the Mughal Empire was still very formidable and pan Indian in extent (albeit a tad over-extended). By 1739, the decline of the empire was well underway. The Mughal emperor at the time of Nadir Shah’s assault was Muhammad Shah, Aurangzeb’s great grandson.

Now it is well known that Aurangzeb was just the 6th Mughal emperor, between 1526 and 1707. But Muhammad Shah who ascended the throne in 1719, was the 12th!

So you had six new emperors in the ten years following Aurangazeb’s death – as many emperors as the number between 1526 and 1707 – a commentary on the chaos at the head of the empire in the years succeeding Aurangzeb.

Now let us do a quick summary on the state of the region just before Nadir Shah’s assault –

  • Bengal was already semi-independent, with Murshid Quli Khan becoming the first Nawab of the region circa 1720.
  • Avadh was on its way to autonomy with Saadat Khan becoming its first Nawab in 1722.
  • The Marathas were clearly in the ascendant. By 1737, they had gained tax collection rights in Deccan, Gujarat, Bundelkhand. In 1737, two years before Nadir Shah’s raid, Baji Rao attacked Delhi and scored a remarkable victory – despite having an army half as large as the Mughals. Post the battle of Delhi, Malwa was ceded by the Mughals to Baji Rao’s Marathas. In 1738 on the eve of the Nadir Shah invasion, the Mughal crown was already weakened considerably.

The other point to note is that even after 2 full centuries of Mughal rule, the nobility of the land was largely foreign born. So power was wielded by men who felt no patriotism for India, and had no affinity to the traditions and culture of the land.  Let’s take some examples –

      • Nizam Ul Mulk, perhaps the most influential noble in early 1700s, was of Uzbek ancestry. His grandfather had migrated from Samarkhand
      • Saadat Khan, the Nawab Avadh, was a native of Nishapur (north eastern Iran), who had moved to India in early 1700s

This goes contrary to the perception pushed by many historians today that Mughals shouldn’t be regarded as foreigners as they were “thoroughly assimilated” and “rooted” in the Indian soil. Hardly the case.

The foreign origins of much of the creme-de-la-creme of the nobility meant a somewhat weak affinity to the land, and susceptibility to treason against the state. Saadat Khan in fact later advised Nadir Shah to assault Delhi, and ask for a large ransom.

Now let’s examine the situation in Persia in the decades leading up to Nadir Shah’s invasion of India.

The Safavid empire ended in 1722 following an Afghan rebellion. But this proved shortlived, with Nadir Shah defeating the Afghans and establishing his rule over Persia starting 1736.

With respect to Afghanistan – Mughals had lost Southern Afghanistan (including Qandahar) to Persia in the mid 1600s. However they retained control of Kabul / northern parts of the country.

Right from the start of his reign, Nadir evinced great interest in the Mughal Empire. He could see the waning power in Delhi as an opportunity. Also the Persian hold over Qandahar meant a strategic advantage for Persia, lost to the Mughals for nearly a century.

Failed Diplomatic efforts

What’s interesting though is that Nadir didn’t simply launch an assault on India with a savage horde. He engaged in extensive diplomacy, with multiple communications with Mughal crown!

E.g. in 1736, Nadir Shah sent an envoy to Delhi, informing of his intent to expel Afghan rebels from Qandahar, and requesting that the Mughal power in Kabul should obstruct these Afghans and not give them refuge. The Mughal emperor Muhammad Shah responded agreeably. But when the expulsion of Afghans happened from Qandahar in early 1737, the Afghan rebels did flee to Kabul. The Mughals breached on their promise!

When Nadir Shah sought an explanation for this breach through an envoy, Delhi gave him no reply. And on top of that detained the Persian envoy!

Even communication between Delhi and Kabul was terribly slothful! When the Mughal governor in Kabul sought funds for his troops, his repeated requests were turned down by Muhammad Shah the emperor. So clearly you had a situation when the frontier regions of Afghanistan and Punjab grew gradually defenceless through neglect, at a time when Persian power under Nadir Shah was on the rise.

This was an empire waiting to be assaulted.

The Battle at Karnal

Nadir conquered Northern Afghanistan in 1738. Peshawar and Lahore soon followed. Then the Shah marched to Karnal, where a decisive battle awaited him. In the great battle that ensued at Karnal (February 1739), the Persian army numbered at 55K cavalry. The Mughal army was likely larger, but heavily reliant on elephants – a ponderous and outmoded carrier.

What’s also remarkable is that the Mughal armies took for ever to assemble at Karnal! Saadat Khan, the noble from Awadh, took a whole month to arrive with his troops in Karnal.

It took him 3 days to travel from Delhi to Panipat – a mere distance of 55 miles! This is in sharp contrast to the blitzkrieg raids that Marathas were undertaking elsewhere in India at the same time. The Mughal army (in part perhaps because of its reliance on elephants) was not mobile enough. Not nimble enough.

The other major difference was in the familiarity and comfort with fire-arms. The Persian army revelled at fire-arms. The Mughal army still relied a great deal on swordsmanship and “felt a contempt for missile weapons” (to quote Jadunath Sarkar)

Here’s Sarkar elaborating on the Indian inefficiency at fire-arms

So the result at Karnal was a resounding victory for Nadir Shah. But what followed was not a raid on Delhi rightaway, but extensive negotiations for peace!  This included face-to-face conversations between Nadir Shah and the Mughal emperor Muhammad Shah at the Persian camp near Karnal.

Negotiations post battle

Here’s an account from Sarkar drawing on the primary sources of Harcharan, Anandram et al on the first meeting between Nadir Shah and Muhammad Shah.

But the emperor reneged on his word and did not pay the requested ransom of Rs 20 crores! This angered Shah and eventually led to a second meeting with the emperor and the latter’s house-arrest

Raid on Delhi

What followed was the famous raid on Delhi, which lasted about 50 days. But a point to note is that the provocation for this trigger came from the Mughal side. Saadat Khan in particular – the Nawab of Oudh.  While Nadir originally had an indemnity of 50 lacs in mind, it was Saadat who told Nadir after the Karnal battle, that if he were to go to Delhi, he could get 20 crores! As opposed to 50 lacs.

Nadir’s raid on Delhi was focused mainly on collection of ransom. Not just from the treasury, but also from private mohallas, with the consent of the Mughal emperor. But he did not intend to engage in a massacre. What triggered the massacre was an uprising in Delhi against the stationed Persian soldiers. Some 3000 Persian soldiers were killed by Delhi-ites. Nadir had to retaliate with a massacre, which likely claimed some 20K Delhi civilian lives in a span of a few hours. This is a conservative estimate, with other estimates as high as 4 lacs.

Consequences and Takeaways

So that brings us to the end of this brief account of Nadir Shah’s raid of Delhi. What were its consequences?

First of all the raid did not trigger the empire’s decline per se. The Mughal empire’s decline had started long before Nadir Shah set foot.  But Nadir Shah’s invasion unlike Timur had some political consequences – it resulted in the loss of Afghanistan and the modern Frontier province to Persia. Eventually it led to the loss of Punjab to the Afghans (under Ahmed Shah Abdali) a few decades later. The Maratha raids on Bengal too ensued a few years after Nadir’s raid.

So it could be said that Nadir Shah’s invasion hastened the decline of the empire, though not necessarily the cause of it.

More importantly it has some lessons for our times. We tend to think of “invaders” as ravaging hordes lacking in civilization and human values. But Nadir was a shrewd diplomat. He engaged in multiple diplomatic overtures, though the Mughals bungled every one of them.  Even the ransom amount to him was suggested by a Mughal insider, Saadat Khan. So was the idea to raid Delhi. Even the massacre at Delhi that ensued was in large measure a retaliation of the massacre of his own soldiers by Delhi civilians

We live in an age of constitutional patriotism, where deference to the state has to transcend ethnic ties. But Nadir Shah’s episode has lessons for us in this respect.

The reason the invasion was facilitated was because of high treason, which in turn was caused by the fact that much of the Mughal nobility was of foreign origin, and felt little patriotism towards India.

Some 30 years ago, there was a debate in India around “Foreign origin” of Sonia Gandhi and whether this should bar her from public office and electoral politics. The debate settled in Sonia’s favor

But then when we reflect on episodes like these from the past (Saadat Khan’s treason for instance), you wonder if an ethnic connect to the land is a pre-requisite to expect a high degree of patriotism.

We will conclude on that note.

References: Jadunath Sarkar’s “Nadir Shah in India”.

The author tweets @shrikanth_krish


Looking back at 2019 Maharashtra election

By GauravL 30 Comments

It has been a year since the 2019 Maharashtra election & its consequences which fascinated the country. The drama of the election remains unforgettable, for anyone interested I would recommend the book 36 Days.

For anyone interested in some analysis I would recommend Shekhar Gupta’s Cut the Clutters on the topic: here; here; here and here.

However, here are a few salient points from the election and the Maharashtra government

  1. Imagery matters. This image of the 80-year-old cancer patient Sharad Pawar braving the rains in Satara had a huge impact on voting in western Maharashtra.
  2. If someone has to stop the Hindutva Ashwamedh, strong leaders are essential. No one can win elections on sloganeering without strong & visible leadership.
  3. Caste still plays an important role in even progressive states like Maharashtra. One of the reasons for the defeat of BJP was the anti-Brahmin sentiment evoked by NCP by indirectly attacking Fadanvis’s caste.
  4. Ideology is important for political parties, but not as important as survival. Shivsena’s shift out of the NDA was for its survival and not for any other nonsense we hear.
  5. The NDA was well and truly over in 2019, the Akali’s leaving the NDA was in someways foreshadowed by ShivSena’s exit. Bihar election result and Nitish/Paswan reaction to the result would be something to watch out for.
  6. Forming a coalition government is easy, running an effective administration with conflicting interests and multiple power centers are tough. It would be a surprise if the SS-NCP-INC government completes its full term.
  7. All governments abuse institutions when in power and to nearly the same extent, not just the BJP.
  8. Regionalism can be a bulwark against Central hegemony. The region can bind what ideologies divide.
  9. Confrontational governments will find it difficult to work with an all-powerful central government. Non-BJP state governments can either take the Maharashtra route or the Andhra route (of YSR Jagan Reddy)
  10. The respect of the position of the governor (which never had too much respect I guess) has taken a very bad hit after the Maharashtra example.

Problems with the terms INDIC and DHARMIC

By GauravL 41 Comments

With the rise of Hindutva, certain terms are gaining traction in the intellectual spheres for denoting native Indian beliefs and philosophical systems. As the word Hindu which started as a geographical term has today come to mean a specific overarching faith and philosophical system among the Indian native systems, new words need to be found to encompass all the native systems under an umbrella term. As a term, the terms Dharmic and Indic have come up to encompass all the native Indian systems – like Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, Sikhism, etc. The need to have a separate word for these systems appears valid, but I often cringe at the use of words Dharmic & Indic (though I hypocritically use them). The primary urge to use these terms seems to be the desire to have a broad tent for native Indian faiths against/or in contrast to western philosophical and religious systems (especially Abrahamic and Enlightenment systems).


The word Indic originally appears to be used for denoting Indo-Aryan languages in the literature. However, it is being used extensively by people from Left as well as Right to denote the native Indian faiths.

Merriam Webster dictionary defines Indic as:

  • of or relating to the subcontinent of IndiaINDIAN
  • of, relating to, or constituting the Indo-Aryan branch of the Indo-European languages ( Urdu the national language of Pakistan is also an Indic language, so would Pakistan by extension be Indic? )

If we take the first meaning, it simply means Indian. Unless it metamorphs into the meaning the users of the term Indic want to be mean, this will continue to be confusing in the future as well. The urge to avoid using the term Indian which has a specific meaning in the world of nation-states is understandable but Indic doesn’t seem to go around the problem enough IMO.

Another problem with the term Indic is that the word itself has no history in any of the native systems. Though after the popularization of South West Asia (or South Asia), Indic seems not so bad.


The word Dharma is a better candidate as it is the concept of Dharma that loosely binds the native Indian systems more than the mere geographical accident of origin. The meaning of Dharma in all the native faiths is similar enough to make this framing faithful. But the word Dharma has a meaning that transcends the native Indian practices and seems to point towards some basal human morality. In a way, Dharma is universal and unconstrained by the geographical boundaries of the subcontinent. Consequently using Dharmic for specific systems just because they know “of Dharma” or are “in conversation about Dharma” is wanting. The word Dharma also carries a lot of moral baggage and it would be unwise to even indirectly imply that certain systems are Dharmic.

Additionally, if we use Dharmic to denote native Indian faiths, what would we call the non-native Indian faiths? Adharmic faiths or Non-Dharmic or Un-Dharmic? Adharma like Dharma cannot be used to denote whole faith and philosophical systems – unless you are in the supremacist bubble. Similarly, other negations – Non/Un when placed on a word of deep meaning like Dharma don’t lead to desirable labels.


Compare both these to the word Hindutva. For anyone who has rudimentary exposure to any Indo-Aryan (Indic) languages, the word would instantly click. There is something organic and quintessential about the word itself which is certainly lacking in Indic/Dharmic.

Though the word Hindutva was not coined by Savarkar, it certainly was popularized by him. Savarkar himself is credited with over 100 new words in Marathi. Though the aim of Savarkar behind his neologisms is often chided by liberals as fanatical, no one can deny that the result is an enhanced Marathi vocabulary.

In closing, it wouldn’t be a very bad idea to coin a new word to denote the wide tent under which a variety of native Indian cultures have flourished for millennia. Linguists and geeks – get working.



By Slapstik 40 Comments

This is a redux of an older piece I wrote. Thought of reposting it after a recent bit of twitter conversation with Omar on the topic. This is my attempt to disambiguate some of the terms used in the discussion around the old Urdu-Hindi controversy, on which debates tend to generate more heat than light as a rule. I have enumerateed my thoughts point-wise, to give some structure to the debate and let people comment on specific points raised. Since this subject is quite prone to digression to related (and sometimes politically charged) topics, I reserve the carte blanche to delete comments that go off on tangents etc. I apologize for this ex ante.

Continue reading “Hindi-Urdu”


Jaswant Singh: The Last Liberal Conservative

By London Observer 8 Comments

Major Jaswant Singh (1938-2020), a former Indian army officer and distinguished parliamentarian and politician passed away recently. He served high office in the first BJP/NDA regime (1998-2004) and was, variously, the Defence, External Affairs and Finance Minister. Perhaps his most enduring legacy was his deft handling of India’s foreign policy in the aftermath of India’s nuclear tests in 1998. Most famously, his dialogues with the US Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott helped cement Indo-US ties in the aftermath of the Cold War era.

There are some excellent obituaries- from allies, critics and rivals alike- which give us a good sense of the man and his persona. For me, the obituary that really struck a chord was the one by the senior Indian journalist Shekhar Gupta in his Cut the Clutter show.  It is worth quoting him verbatim:

Jaswant Singh was the last Indian liberal conservative… A conservative in the sense that he brought in a Hindu sensibility, a love for Indian culture. But liberal enough…to embrace everybody… and not interfere in anybody’s way of life and allow a healthy debate… he would have fitted the Swatantra Party very well and would have brought to it the one thing it seemed to lack in the 1950s and 60s: a strong appeal to nationalism”.  

With Singh’s passing, it does feel that the last vestiges of the Vajpayee era are fading away. In his obituary for Singh, the journalist Saeed Naqvi, by no means a cheerleader for the BJP says that “Vajpayee’s was a cabinet of women and gentlemen, a few rotten apples notwithstanding.” Old fashioned virtues of moderation, decency and honour were valued by Vajpayee, and there was no one who epitomised old school more than Jaswant Singh. Through his career as a soldier and public servant and his sense of noblesse oblige, this thoroughbred Rajput proved to be a worthy Kshatriya by virtue of his karma.  In that, he was not alone. Dr. Karan Singh of the Dogra dynasty of Jammu & Kashmir and Captain Amrinder Singh of the House of Patiala are others of his generation who come to mind, albeit with different political ideologies.

Jaswant Singh and Atal Bihari Vajpayee: The last of the Liberal Conservatives. Source:

As a self-avowed liberal conservative, it is hard to not feel a tinge of sadness at this. One got the sense that men like Vajpayee and Singh were able to balance tradition and modernity: adept at blending the Burkean with the Vedantic, and equally well versed in the Bhagavad Gita and the Indian Constitution.

I could name half a dozen prominent BJP politicians in the Vajpayee years who could have identified as liberal conservatives. I struggle to name any noteworthy ones in the Modi-Shah BJP. The closest that comes to mind is the Odisha politician Baijayant Panda, but he is not prominent or important enough in the party. Others such as the former Maharastra Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis or the current Madhya Pradesh Chief Minister Shivraj Chauhan had the potential to tailor their politics in this direction with the right backing and support. Unfortunately the signal from the leadership is that chest-thumping nationalism and ideological purity counts for more than moderation and compromise. Unlike a Jaswant Singh, these politicians do not have the intellectual courage or independence of spirt to breach the party line and chart their own path. It is a sad indictment on Indian politics, one that would have undoubtedly greatly depressed Jaswant Singh.


On Indians in East Africa

By srikanth 31 Comments

The Indian diaspora is said to be over 30 million. While the popular tendency is usually to talk of the diaspora in the West (which is recent in formation), Indians have played a far more important role in East Africa if we take a long historical view of the past 150 years

Thomas Sowell’s very fine book “Migrations and Cultures” is an eye-opener in this respect as it sheds a great deal of light on the Indian engagement in Africa since the middle of 19th century. This short post dwells briefly on the Indian contributions in East Africa (particularly Uganda / Tanzania / Kenya) drawn mainly from Sowell’s work.

Let’s take the Tanzanian island outpost of Zanzibar off the African east coast. While the Indian presence in Zanzibar today is not much to write home about, this island was one of the first African territories to be settled by Indians. There was a phase in history when Zanzibar was practically run by Indians. In 1860, a report mentioned – “All the shopkeepers and artisans at Zanzibar are natives of India”!

The numbers of Indians in Zanzibar weren’t great. Only about 5000 in the 1860s. But nearly all foreign trade was conducted by them. As of 1872, an American trader owed Indian financiers in the Island $2MM and a French firm owed these financiers at least $4MM.

While in mid 19th century, Indian presence was largely in Zanzibar and some coastal areas of East Africa, the interior was opened up when the British constructed the great railroad that connected Mombasa port in Kenya to Lake Victoria in Uganda in late 19th century. 16000 laborers were involved in the construction of this great pioneer Railway project. Of which 15000 were Indians.

What’s interesting is that these coolies were pretty expensive compared to the indigenous African labor. Yet the expensive indentured Indian labor from thousands of miles away was preferred as they were more valuable and productive than locally available African labor. The railroad construction proved the trigger for much of the Indian migration to the African mainland – particularly Kenya and Uganda. Much of the migration was from Gujarat.

The Indian settlements in these parts were a momentous event in Africa’s long history. In Sowell’s words, the Indian shops in East Africa were the first commercial retail establishments ever encountered by these African villages in their entire history. The Indians in East Africa were the first to import / sell cereal. Sowell credits them for “transforming East Africa from a subsistence and barter economy into a money economy” in the late 19th / early 20th century.

As an example Taxes in Uganda until late 19th century were paid in kind. Starting in 20th century they were paid in money and the currency was rupees!

In 1905, a report in Kenya declared – “80% of the present capital and business energy in the country is Indian”. In 1948, Indians owned over 90% of all cotton gins in Uganda. In the 1960s, when the Indian population peaked in Uganda, their share of the population was about 1%. But as per some estimates the “Asian” contribution (mostly Indian) to the national GDP ranged from 35% to 50%.

In 1952, there were twice as many African traders as Indian traders in Uganda, but the Indian traders did 3 times as much business as the Africans! Despite Govt regulations which hampered Indians from setting up shops (again as per Sowell).

Resentment against Indian dominance eventually got a lease of life when most of the East African countries became independent in the 60s and 70s. The dictator Idi Amin’s expulsion of most Ugandan Indians in the early 70s was a notorious episode at the time when the Asian population in Uganda dropped from 96K in 1968 to ~1000 in 1972.

The case in Kenya was not very different from Uganda. Indians dominated the Kenyan economy. Yet post Kenyan Independence, the pressures to “africanize” meant that the Asian (mostly Indian) numbers in Kenya dropped from 176K in 1962 to 25K in 1975.

Today Indians play a more marginal role in the region than they once did. .While we tend to diss imperialism a lot, we sometimes forget that imperialism was also a driver of such unlikely inter-continental migrations which brought commercial culture to hitherto unexplored regions.

Political independence to the region did not work out very well for the enterprising Indian diaspora. The Indian businessman who had played a large role in building these economies was driven out of it, with little gratitude.

The story of Indians in East Africa is a much unheralded one, that ought to be celebrated more in India, and must be taught in Indian textbooks. This was not a political colonization driven by kings. This was a mission undertaken by hard working ordinary Indians who shone with their probity, enterprise and sweat.

All the more reason to celebrate and commemorate it.

The author tweets @shrikanth_krish


On language diversity in India – North vs South

By srikanth 46 Comments

Language remains a bone of contention within Indian discourse, and much of it surrounds the North Indian insistence on Hindi (more specifically Khariboli, the high prestige dialect of Hindi spoken traditionally in the region around Delhi) versus the Southern insistence on lingual diversity and the immense pride in regional lingual traditions (be it Tamil, Kannada or Telugu)

But the fundamental divide is this –

Lingual diversity in North India is significantly lower than in the Deccan, which creates fundamental differences in the attitudes towards lingua franca like Khariboli

Roughly 450 million people from Bikaner to Jamshedpur speak similar tongues Yet the 60 million people in Karnataka can barely follow the 70 million people in TN

The reason Khariboli in my view established itself as the primary lingua franca of the North Indian plain is because the differences across the various languages spoken from Panipat to Gaya were not as massive to start with. Clearly smaller than the differences between say Telugu and Tamil.

But why is that? One obvious proximate reason –

South had regional polities unlike North where Empires spanned the whole Indo-Gangetic plain, driving greater homogeneity in the spoken Prakrits.

But what are the underlying reasons for the greater political unity of North India?

    • The Northern terrain is more uniform, unlike South which is a plateau. Also the nature of the terrain varies a lot down south. E.g. Tamil Nadu is clearly a plain, while neighboring Kerala is hill country and Karnataka is an elevated plateau. This perhaps limited social intercourse of people in ancient times.
    • In the North we have the great Ganges river. The Ganga-Jamuna river system unites the land, linking the whole expanse of land through maritime commerce.  South has no such single river system but separate provincial rivers like Krishna, Godavari in AP, Kaveri in Karnataka and TN.
    • North India was setted earlier by the Indo-Aryans. Its proto-historical period can be conservatively dated to 1500-1000 BCE. In contrast, Southern India emerges out of pre-history much later towards the beginning of the Common era. The earlier settlement meant that the Gangetic plain is significantly denser and also uniformly dense. E.g. UP’s density is over 800 per sq. km, while Bihar is at 1100. Whereas in the South, there is greater variation in population density. Tamil Nadu is at 550 per, Kerala is 800+, while Karnataka and Andhra are significantly less dense (around 300).. The higher and more uniform density up north perhaps contributed to a more homogeneous lingual culture.

But the last hypothesis is unsatisfactory. It leaves us with the question – Why didn’t the less dense and more isolated parts of North India (Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh evolve distinct regional cultures? Having said that, it must be noted that the relatively denser parts of these two states – Malwa and Mewar are culturally closer to the Gangetic mainstream culture than other parts of these provinces where we do see greater variation in dialect (E.g. Marwar)

I feel the vastly different levels of lingual diversity between the Northern plains and Deccan impact how the discourse is conducted today on the issue of Hindi and Khariboli.

The “typical” North Indian argument underrates the diversity down south. And hence goes like this –

Hey. We are Braj, Avadhi, Bhojpuri speakers. We don’t mind our differences, and have chosen to embrace Khariboli as the “standard” tongue. Why can’t you southerners do so as well?

The “typical” South Indian argument overstates the lingual diversity up north.

Hey..why are you guys adopting Khariboli without resistance. Why have you guys given up on Braj, Avadhi, Bhojpuri? Get a spine!

Both sides in my view get it wrong. Northerners understate lingual diversity down south. Southerners overstate lingual diversity up north. This is at the root of most culture wars around language

The author tweets @shrikanth_krish


Dammed it you dont: The hydraulic origins of the divergence between the Raj, India and Pakistan

By Vikram 55 Comments

Historians have put forth the the idea that complex political states originated as ‘hydraulic empires’, a need for ancient societies to manage vast water systems. Governments have evolved from their ancient origins to do a lot more beyond managing water. However, we shall see in this post that attitudes towards water can lead to important differences in the evolution of spatially and temporally adjacent political entities.

In terms of hydrology and geology, there are striking contrasts between the Indo-Gangetic plain and peninsular India. The Indo-Gangetic plain is drained by perennial rivers, fed by both Himalayan glaciers and monsoonal precipitation. Peninsular India, on the other hand, is drained only by monsoon-fed seasonal rivers. Geologically, the Indo-Gangetic plain is blessed with alluvial soil which is both fertile and holds groundwater. Peninsular India is composed of harder rocks, which leads to more runoff and less groundwater retention. Water has always been a much harder challenge in peninsular India than the Gangetic plain.

The British Raj and its successor state of India, had vastly different attitudes towards the hydro problems of peninsular India. However, the Raj’s successor state of Pakistan never had to deal with the water challenges of peninsular India. Pakistan remained agriculturally more productive per worker than India till 2017. India had to construct 5264 medium and large dams (compared to Pakistan’s 150) to overtake Pakistan on that count. A side effect was an advanced industrial and technical base.

We first discuss the dam policy of the British Raj, which is known for its investments in railways and canals. A striking rarity in the Raj’s impressive portfolio of grand infrastructure projects are mega dams. It is not that the British did not build significant water-works in India, but these were overwhelmingly barrages and canal irrigation projects. And the absence of large dams was not due to a lack of technical expertise, indeed, elsewhere in the empire, (notably Canada and Australia), British engineers pioneered the techniques that underlie the construction of modern, large scale dams.

So what explains the Raj’s dam reluctance in their richest canvas ? It is likely that the politics of British India underlies the inhibition towards dams. The centre of gravity of the British Indian empire was the Indo-Gangetic plain. It was the most populated region, the region which produced the most recruits for the British Indian army and the region they really needed to manage. And this region did not need dams. The large dams the British built were mainly in deep South India, the largest dam there was a project conceived by the king of Mysore, Krishnaraja Wodeyar.

The modern day Republic of India found itself in a very different political situation. The elites of peninsular India were organized and had the numbers to match their Gangetic counterparts. Prime minister Nehru, although Gangetic, was deeply influenced by the economic philosophy of the Soviet Union. At the time, the Soviet Union was a master of building mega dams. A massive dam building project ensued, all across India. In the Gangetic plain, this meant increased agricultural yields, but in peninsular India, the dams were a game-changer. Vast tracts of land in Madhya Pradesh were brought under productive cultivation. Interior Maharastra developed a sugarcane belt. Gujarat has become a leader in cotton, tobacco and groundnuts.

Equally important, dams made large cities viable outside the Gangetic plain. Dams and their reservoirs are the only reason the nascent urban centres of peninsular India (Mumbai, Pune, Ahmedabad, Bengaluru and Hyderabad) could become the dynamic mega-cities they are today. In contrast, Gangetic plain cities continue to get their water from the perennial rivers that they are set on (Delhi-Yamuna, Lucknow-Gomti, Patna-Ganges, Kolkata-Hooghly and so on).

It is conceivable that the extreme importance of large dams and water management structures pushed India’s post-independent elites to invest heavily into engineering education. The public and private enterprises in charge of dam construction, irrigation boards, and hydroelectric machinery provided employment for the labour produced by these elite institutes. These projects thus serviced the needs and aspirations of both urban elites and the vast rural voting masses.

On the other hand, Pakistan’s situation was quite different. With the exception of Islamabad, Pakistan’s cities get their water in the same way Gangetic Indian cities do, surface water and ground water. Developing state-of-the-art water management technology was never an imperative for the Pakistani elite.


The anxieties behind narrative of “Love Jihad”

By GauravL 42 Comments

I finally completed Dr Ambedkar’s fascinating book on Pakistan after reading it on and off for years. Though he comes across as an essentialist in some of his arguments, many fault-lines Dr. Ambedkar points out hold true even 70 years after the publication of the book.

(I plan to write about that book sometime later – but especially for those who don’t identify with Hindutva I will highly recommend that book)

Dr. Ambedkar says the following in this book PAKISTAN OR THE PARTITION OF INDIA during his polemic against Purdah.

The evil consequences of purdah are not confined to the Muslim community only. It is responsible for the social segregation of Hindus from Muslims which is the bane of public life in India. This argument may appear far fetched and one is inclined to attribute this segregation to the unsociability of the Hindus rather than to purdah among the Muslims. But the Hindus are right when they say that it is not possible to establish social contact between Hindus and Muslims because such contact can only mean contact between women from one side and men from the other

This is the core motivation that has lead to the popularization of term Love-Jihad. The anxieties of Hindus are not motivated largely by the fear that “Muslims will abduct their daughters and sisters and forcibly convert them”. That exists largely in the straw-man.

Their anxieties stem from the following

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On Language wars and the rise of the Vernacular in history

By srikanth 39 Comments

Language wars are a constant feature of Indian public life. Most recently there was much discussion on Language on Indian twitter triggered by the National Education Policy (NEP 2020). But amidst the language squabbles, we tend to reflect less on the root cause of all the language schisms –  The rise of the Vernacular. A relatively recent phenomenon in Indian history.

Back in 1000 CE, Sanskrit reigned supreme as the primary literary tongue of India. There was some Prakrit literature and considerable literature in some of the older Southern languages – Tamil and Kannada in particular.  But for the most part Vernaculars had a position secondary to Sanskrit.

The language of prestige and literary expression was undoubtedly Sanskrit, though it was hardly the mother tongue for a large percentage of Indians. Vernaculars reigned at home, and in common speech. Yet in an age of limited literacy, they never competed with Sanskrit for “prestige”. This was very much the case not just in India, but in much of the western world as well. In Europe, as late as 15th century, 70% of the printed literature was in Latin!

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