How Islam came to India and why now it needs to go from India-9 : The economic decline of India under Islam

Posted on August 28, 2008. Filed under: Hindu, India, Islam, Muslims, religion |

Most historians writing on the economic aspects of the subcontinent at least agree that many indicators of economic activity in India appear to decline beginning in the 7th century. The Thaparite School of Indian history ascribes this to primarily two factors – (1) excessive expenditure on import of good quality horses from the middle East and central Asia (2) excessive consumption of imported luxury items by the numerous feudatory chiefs and their exploitation of India for petty internecine warfare. To this is usually added the apparent general apathy of Indians to defend their maritime trade, foreign trade, to develop and take initiative to expand their economy and international trade.

Typically, in all this, it has become fashionable now to remove any role of Islamic invasions and the Islamic traders. If at all mentioned they have to be mentioned in a totally positive light, with the few stories of apparent friendship or collaboration between certain non-Muslims of India and Arabian traders as generally representative of a society wide phenomenon. We must remember, that similar arguments are not allowed to be applied to the few instances of conflict or repression by Islamic invaders and traders as a general phenomenon and are usually demanded to be dismissed as fabrications, lies or exceptions.

A formal rigorous analysis of such historical material explicitly aimed at investigating the role of Islam and Islamic traders and invaders (we will see that these two roles were not always separate, and there are instances when the traders are known to have spied for their Islamic rulers as well as traders performing military roles or military disguised as traders performing survey of the land and its people or defences) has yet not been undertaken on its own, but as parts of works by different historians. Typically this appears to be a very uncomfortable portion of their work, for most of them are perhaps aware that the official Thaparite establishment can finish off their careers through their control of the Indian Historical Congress, control over the media, patronage by the political establishment affiliated to the Congress and “vulgar” Marxism (Marxists will know the meaning of the term!) and their control over research agenda as well as filtering the upcoming generations of historians by deciding who gets supported through academic and research positions or who get published. Well known connections of mutual patronage to historians of European origin primarily maturing in the neo-Marxian crucibles of 60’s West European universities, as well as possible general subconscious bias in favour of mono-theistic traditions over and above that of the “pagans” combined with fear from racist and imperialist fear of cultural consolidation of the “Hindu” on the subcontinent which has already proven strongly resistant to mono-theism of the revealed strand – has led to a continuation of the stranglehold of the Thaparite School as the sole arbitors of historical truth.

Decline of the Indian naval and merchant fleets – piracy and apathy or advent of Islam?

Up to the 7th century, historians find and report that the Indian empires had powerful navies and merchant fleet, with an active interest taken by the highly organized state administrations in the maintenance, development, and deployment of fleets of ships both for military and commercial purpose. The Arthasastra mentions state-owned vessels lent to merchants and used for cruising, transport of men and material as well as commerical operations. Megasthenes [McCrindle, Ancient India as described in Classical literature] reports that the Indian shipbuilders were salaried public servants and that ships built in the royal yards were hired to ocean voagers and traders. A Jataka story also refers to sailors as King’s salaried men. The Periplus of the Erythrean Sea, describes native fishermen in the King’s service stationed at the entrances of the western sea-ports in well-manned large boats going up the coast as far as Syrastrene, from which they pilot vessels to Barygaza (Bahrukaccha – Broach). These pilots in royal service are called sagara-palogananam (literally knowledgeable in the arts of sea and sails) in a Kanheri inscription (Proc. of I.H.C., 1960). The Satavahana kings actively promoted and regulated shipping as proved in the ship coins of Sri Yajna Satakarni [Rapson, coins of the Andhra Dynasty]. There are supporting evidence in Harchacharita [Life of Harsha, by Bana] and Ptolemy. This tradition was kept alive by the Pallava and Kurumvara kings, some of whose coinage seems to reflect the Satavahana style, as well as other literary indications, and archaeological indications of the presence of South Indian ships in South East Asia. The last such indication of naval concerns we find curiously enough in the 7th century when Bhaskaravarma [reputed to have invaded parts of Gaura-Vanga or north Bengal], a ruler of Assam is reported to own 30,000 ships.

The crucial factor never taken up for investigation by historians, is the coincidence of exactly this period of gradual decline of the Indian sea-trade, a significant source of its wealth, with the rise of the Islamic regime in the Middle East. We have already mentioned in previous posts how the 7th century marks the beginning of the the Arab raids both from the sea along Sind and Gujarat as well as the land routes through the North-West passages, with the high point being the devastation of Sind in the early 8th century by Qasim. Typically the Thaparite School bypasses this issue in two ways.

The first of this is the “piracy by non-Muslim rulers of India” hypothesis. One big problem with the “Indian non-Muslim pirate” hypothesis is the fact that Pirates are reported to have sailed in “great” and powerful vessels called Bira, and that they were looting sailors and merchants all over the Arabian sea, including the Gulf area, southern Red Sea, Ceylon and as far as Zanzibar. [ Al Beruni, Marco Polo, Ibn Batuta- Voyages, Badger – A History of the Imams and Sayyids of Oman] If Indian sailors had the capacity to maintain such large ships with military intent and skill [piracy is only a form of naval warfare in the ancient world – and quite prestigious depending on how valuable the pirate was to the ruler – Elizabeth I of England would be a prime example] – and could dominate the whole of the Arabian sea, why could not they maintain this dominance in trade, which obviously they had done in previous centuries? On the other hand, if it was a common custom in the Arabian sea rim for powerful rulers to use piracy as means of gaining wealth and controlling trade, then why should we leave out the growing Islamic power in the region for resorting to piracy as means of wresting control of the lucrative sea-trade from the Indians. There are two important clues overlooked in standard histories – the Arab trading vessels appear to suffer less, and piracy actually goes on as far as Zanzibar and southern Red Sea, where Indians rarely manage to go in this period. The second important clue is provided by the pretext on which Hajjaj sends his son-in-law Qasim to invade Devala in Sind after failing in his earlier attempts- that King Dahir of Sind should recompense Hajjaj for the alleged lootings by pirates of certain ships laden with people, slaves, and gifts meant for Hajjaj sent from Ceylon. We have on good authority of the Chinese and Arabian sources, that at this period, Indian ships were smaller, slower, and less powerful than both Chinese and Arabian ships, but the largest ones actually belonged to the kingdom of Ceylon.[Al, Beruni, Hourani- Arab seafaring, Chau-ju-kua]

I would like to raise the speculative question in the style the Thaparite School is so fond of : Is it possible that the Arab and Islamic regimes dominating the Middle East now actively engaged in sponsoring piracy to wrest control of the Arabian sea trade from the Indians , and also used these pirates for political and military strategic needs? [something along the lines of a public outrage in modern societies sponsored by the secret services so that an unpopular policy can be foisted upon the population]. Is it possible that the expansion of Islamic power on the Arabian plateau, and the Gulf region, displaced coastal populations and Persian skilled sea-farers who were forced to take up piracy after being deprived of their land bases and over-land trade routes? Is it possible some of the Muslim Arab traders themselves took up piracy on a part time basis or performed the dual role of traders and pirates as and when opportunity arose? It is interesting in this context to note the modern work based on extensive “research” of the Bombay archives by the Sultan of Sharjah, Muhammad Al-Qasimi, [The Myth of Arab piracy in the Gulf, 1988] claims that it was the Est India company which painted the Quasims in the lower Persian Gulf as pirates  in order to wrest control of the sea-trade to India. Curiously, he mentions that the Company did not have sufficient warships to to defeat the Quasim fleet, and called on the British Ryal navy to complete the task – why would anyone need warships to complete the task of suppressing a peaceful merchant fleet? The Southern Arabians, ancient Nabaeteans, were associated with piracy from classical times. Diodorus tells us:  After one has sailed past this country, the Laeanites Gulf comes next, about which are many inhabited villages of Arabs who are known as Nabataeans. This tribe occupies a large part of the coast and not a little of the country which stretches inland, and it has a people beyond telling and flocks and herds in multitude beyond belief. Now in ancient times these men observed justice and were content with the food which they received from their flocks, but later, after the kings of Alexandria had made the ways of the sea navigable for their merchants, these Arabs not only attacked the shipwrecked, but fitting out pirate ships and preyed upon the voyagers, imitating in their practice the savage and lawless ways of the Tauri of the Pontusl. Some time afterwards, however, they were caught on the high seas by some quadriremes and punished as they deserved.” The naval details mentioned here indicate approximately 200 BCE. From Strabo we know that it was a Nabataean policy to not allow foreign ships to pass beyond the southern end of the Red Sea. They did this, by maintaining a pirate station in Eudaimon Arabia, known today as Aden. Strabo tells us that fewer than 20 boats a year would venture past the end of the Red Sea of fear of these pirates.

The indictment of only the Indians in “piracy” by the Thaparite School is actually based on very few anecdotes and is open to other interpretations. Practically speaking only three major instances are repeated over and over again in the Thaparite literature – (1) the Dasakumaracharita, in which a prince of Tamralipti [ancient seaport in Midnapore, modern WestBengal] “swarms” around a “Yavana” [at this period anyone coming from the west of India] ship (2) the Prabandhachintamani, which talks of three princes of King Yogaraja looting near the port of Somesvara a ship belonging to another country, and Yogaraja himself refers to the negative reputation of soem of his predecessors as regarding looting of vessels by Gurjara (3) the Motupalli pillar inscription in which King Ganapatideva claims that former kings forcibly took away the wares of ships voayging from one country to another which were wrecked, driven ashore or forced to touch at a place that was not meant as a port of call. Only in this context , is of course also Ibn Batuta’s testimony as to Indian pirates are also acceptable by the Thaparite School but not his claims of Islamic repression on non-Muslims of India, which are to be treated as boasts. It is never mentioned that the coastal states appear to have adopted and strictly enforced a license system. The boats of sailors residing in the country had to pay 1/10th of their cargo as duty on returning to the harbour, whereas a foreign boat without license was liable for confiscation. This rule could have arisen from genuine security concerns, where the states wanted to protect their coasts from the depredations of piratical raid from the sea by foreign powers, as such foreign ships alighting at unsupervised parts of the coast could very well be pirate ships themselves. It is significant to note that even at the height of Arab sea-power, the deep south coastal states appear to have survived and managed to at least partially defend themselves from Arab pirates. And the complaints of all Islamic sources of piracy appears to be connected to this strict enforcement of the laws of the coastal states which they describe as “piracy”.

The second primary reason given for the decline of the maritime trade is the “apathy” of the merchants and the rulers. Typically there is no agreement or even attempt at finding out why the sudden reluctance to be concerned with the sea-trade, which was an important source of the so-called luxuries of which the feudatory chiefs continue to be fond of. The demand apparently was still there, but suddenly Indians are supposed to have got bored with the sea and ceased to take interest in sea-voyages. The only two speculations allowed by the Thaparite School  are  (1) supreme interest of the feudatories in importing horses overland through Afghanistan and therefore neglect of the sea-trade  (2) religious  peculiarities. We will  discuss  (1) later in connection with the  decline in the  land-trade, and here we take up the “religious reluctance” hypothesis. In the earlier period Buddhism was the dominant religion among the Indian merchants, but this period was a period of decline for Buddhism and growth in the popularity of Jainism. Contrary to the general impression sought to be created by the Thaparite School that Brahmanism was on the rise, and that it systematically physically destroyed Buddhism and Jainism is one big lie of official Indian history – right upto the plantation of the Delhi Sultanate we find Jainism quite popular among the ruling princes and Buddhist centres of learning and universities being maintained throughout India.  The Jain text Upamitibhavaprapanchakatha describes how enterprising and enthusiastic young Jain merchants are discouraged from taking up sea-trade. The text is not very clear about whether how much of this restriction owes actually to the Jaina faith itself. On the other hand, the Brihannaradiya, a recognized Brahmanical text of the period, lists sea-voyage as one of the practices which are unfavourable for attaining heaven and unpopular with the people, and therefore forbidden for the Kali Yuga. Kane [History of Dharmasastra] interprets tthe relevant passages to show that the prohibition affected only Brahmanas and that there is evidence to show that even after making such voyages  they still remained fit to be associated with. However after Basham, the possibility of the connection between growth of Islamic dominance and declining non-Muslim Indian trade to these religious injunctions as a practical recognition of the existing conditions, has never been taken up within the official Thaparite School of Indian history. It is also interesting to note that Chinese records and epigraphic records indicate that Indians not yet under Islamic control such as the Chola empire under Rajaraja I in the south continued with a significant sea-trade with the Chinese, so much so that at the same time when the Gaznavids were having their “annual holidays” in northern India,  the Tanjore inscription (1019 C.E.) of Rajendra mentions an endowment in terms of Chinese gold made by a certain merchant and as late as 1296 C.E.,  at the beginning of the peak period of the Sultanate, the Chinese government is still trying to prohibit the export of gold and silver to and limit the value of the trade  with Ma’bar (Coromandel), Kulam(Quilon) and  other places in the deep south.

Part 10

Part 1 : enslavement of non-Muslims

part 4: the myth of the role of Sufis in conversion

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One Response to “How Islam came to India and why now it needs to go from India-9 : The economic decline of India under Islam”

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Somali Muslim pirates in the same area are a problem today.


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