Friday, January 27, 2017

The Economy of the Marathas Part I: Shivaji and the Rise of Chauth

While much has been discussed about the decline of the Marathas in such a short span of time, one has rarely focused on the economic picture of the time as a major attribution of the weakening of the Marathas. In this multi-part series, I shall explore the economic scenario of India in general and the Marathas in particular to argue that the Maratha state was founded on a weak financial footing from the beginning, and never allowed Marathas to be strong enough to assert their control. 

At the time of the rise of the Maratha power under Shivaji, historians have noted a not so favorable economic condition of the rural areas of Deccan. Fukazawa (1987) notes the decay of agriculture as the key to the rise of the Marathas, a direct result of a combination of factors like the incessant fighting between Mughal, Qutbshahi and Adilshahi kingdoms. One has to remember as Srinivasan (1944) notes that the Marathas had been since the times of the Rashtrakutas and all the way to the Qutbshahi and Adilshahi times been involved in the administration of the state in various capacities, including the management of the economy. A large number of initial supporters of Shivaji in fact were Deshmukh zamindars. Given this failure of agricultural system for long, there were various ways devised to finance the relentless military campaigns that the Marathas undertook to attain his dream of svarajya.

However, it would be completely unfair to attribute the decline of the Deccan economy only to the Marathas. Under the successive Sultanates of the Deccan and the Mughal rule, the Deccan was already subject to various natural disasters (vis famines) and the oppressive rules that troubled traders endlessly. Fukazawa (1987) has highlighted records of a Dutch merchant visiting the Qutbshahi kingdom reported how the people pretended to be poor, for ' no prosperous person dares to let the fact be known for fear of the governors, who lightly take all they have on some petty claims'. This is further corroborated by a French traveler’s account in Hyderabad a particular case of a court noble detaining a Hindu banker and forcing him give up a large amount of money, only to be ordered by the king to return as the bankers of the city shut up their shops as a protest at this extortion. Rampant civil wars were even more ruinous for the kingdoms’ subjects, many of whom fled to save their lives in such turbulent times than to face death for failing to pay exorbitant sums being demanded by governors. 

The Mughals had done no better. As Tapan Raychaudhari (1987) had argued, the Mughal state was Leviathan in its nature, with an insatiable appetite for resources for its military conquests as well as opulent expenses. The unlimited desire to expand the empire matched by an indifference to maintaining the economy had started a long term depression of farming, as the revenue collection became more and more repressive, leading to ever greater poverty amongst peasants. Even the traders and moneylenders had come under considerable stress, as Raychaudhari (1987) narrates the account of a Jain merchant Banarasidas writing about jewellers being thrashed with 'thorny whips' by the jagirdar of Jaunpur who demanded what 'they did not have'. Even leading merchants like the brokers of the London East India Company and a son of the famous Parsi trader of Surat, Rustam Manak, were subjected to corporal punishment and torture for no fault of theirs, and how at the time of Akbar’s death 'it became difficult to distinguish between high and low, and the rich and poor resembled one other'.

The Marathas under Shivaji had a great level of personal touch and intervention in the state’s economic affairs. As Sen (1976) observes, this has a direct bearing on the idea of svarajya as Shivaji had imagined, inspired directly by the principles of administration of the past laid out by Kautilya, Shukraniti and other such administrative treatises. Dighe and Qanungo (1977) identified other sources of state revenue, which were

  1. Land revenue
  2. Customs at 2.5% and transit duty
  3. Judicial fees and fines
  4. Forest revenue
  5. Profits and mintage
  6. Presents by subjects and officers
  7. Escheat and forfeitures
  8. Plunder of hostile territory
  9. Booty in war
  10. Chauth and sardeshmukhi
  11. Capture of ships (piracy)
  12. Monopolies
  13. Other cesses, e.g. cess on oil extraction and on ghee production

Despite all these cesses and revenue streams, there were also considerable expenditures of the state under Shivaji. Maintaining a large army of over 200,000, paying civil services, building and repairing of forts, tank and canal construction to improve agriculture and even pensions and prizes to widows of soldiers who died were the key expenses of the state. Giving royalties and rewards from time to time in the form of jagirs was an active policy of Shivaji. Deshmukhs, who had allied with Shivaji, were not allowed to inherit jagirs, a system continued from the times of Malik Ambar of the Adil Shahi, which had been the primay  caused great heartburn amongst the zamindars. This policy was continued by Shivaji, wherein Deshmukhs as well as the Deshpandyas, along with the Patels, Khots and Kulkarnis were strictly regulated and allowed to collect revenues due to them only after these accounts had passed through strict supervision.

While the most famous fiscal measure of Shivaji are chauthai (Chauth) (one fourth of state revenue) and sardeshmukhi (one tenth of state revenue), it is interesting to note the origins of these two financial measures and its purpose. Chauthai was a form of a tribute exacted from hostile or conquered territories, while Sardeshmukhi was a kind of revenue ownership that the Maratha zamindars turned band leaders claimed their own since the days of the Bahmani empire (Sardesai, 1933). Chauthai existed much before Shivaji’s time; in fact, as Sardesai noted, the Portuguese were paying chauth to the kings of Ramnagar in North Konkan for the possession of Daman on the grounds that these territories paid chauth even before they were occupied by the Portuguese. The nature of chauth was more political in nature than economic, as it helped Shivaji and the subsequent Maratha rulers to keep a check on the power of further lands, and this erosion of the economy contributed to the continuing decline of the Mughal empire (Sardesai, 1933). Sardeshmukhi was equally political, as Shivaji had declared himself the sardeshmukh or authority to collect revenue of all Deccan provinces, and in turn charged the fees for this purpose.

That chauth and sardeshmukhi were significant contributors to the Maratha coffers under Shivaji’e rule can be gauged from the fact that at the time of coronation, Shivaji's kingdom yielded about Rs. 30 to Rs. 40 million, while the chauth when fully collected added another Rs. 8 million to his revenue, or almost 20% of the state revenue. This was a difficult proposition, as to maintain the situation merited a strong and nimble army, which in turn perpetuated a cycle wherein raids had to be conducted on cities such as Surat. From a modern economic perspective, one can note the instability of the revenue streams upon the examination of the identified revenue streams. Many of the sources of state revenue are directly incumbent on the military strength of the imposing party and its clout on the payers. Such hot money flows are never welcome in today’s modern macroeconomics, since its instable nature can overturn a country’s finances overnight, as has been seen with hot money in various East Asian economies during the 1990s.

Another thing we must note that at the time of Shivaji and Aurangzeb, the Europeans had solidified their grip on India’s maritime trade with an iron grip. The Portuguese had strong controls on Goa, Daman and Diu and Bombay, while the Dutch and British were gaining strong footholds. Aurangzeb had roundly defeated the British but had agreed to a peace agreement as he knew that the European navy could not be matched by anyone, and had to acknowledge their control on the sea trade routes (Burgess, 2012). Shivaji on the other hand had nothing to complement his army in the Arabian sea, and had to spend extensive sums to even build the foundations of a series of naval fortresses. In the absence of an effective deterrent, therefore, it is likely that the Mughals and the Marathas did not have the leeway to effectively impose cesses and revenues on the trade effectively at the time.

Thus, we have outlined briefly the economic scenario in which the Marathas first came to power under Shivaji Maharaj, and their dependence on chauth and sardeshmukhi to run the economy. In the next part, we shall explore the economics of the Tanjore Marathas to complement this era.

Friday, January 13, 2017

Code Red

Woke up at six
To find a moonlit sky
It was still dark out there
The silences still hung bare
And the roads led nowhere

Switched on the phone
A message beeped out loud
It was you, again
You tried to call, signal failed
I felt real depressed

I know where you were
So don't try pretend otherwise
"It's not what you think," you said
But the lies, they dropped dead
Like them birds in the sky

O I've been tryin' to recover
From your toxic love, and failed
The venom is potent, they said
But the tears, they otherwise said
Betrayal by that special, code red

They played Baez on the radio
But I wanted Chaan instead
To hear sorry, that ne'er was there
The guitar kept getting picked instead
And the mood lasted long

And I lay there, cryin' my heart away
We'll never talk again, I said
Deleted all messages that were there
Wiped my face dry and said
"It's a new day"

The sun was out,
it had an orange glow that time,
The darkness started fading away
The morning has walked in now
And hope was renewed again

Wednesday, January 4, 2017

The Practice of Democracy in India - A Short Synopsis

The article by Rakesh Goyal on the ideas of democracy of ancient India, while useful in providing a theoretical construct, is inadequate in putting forward the practical constructs of these ideas in ancient India. This is problematic, since there is ample evidence in favor of the same. There are several examples of democratic traditions in practice in India. I shall be presenting two particular instances in India to highlight the thriving practices in ancient India. I shall also be putting out the actual practices adopted to safeguard interests and note the potential diversity of the democratic practices observed in ancient India. Also, while the systems have been noted by Mr. Goyal as evidence for democracy in India, his article also lacks an elaboration on the criticisms of the systems thereafter in various texts, which have been given only summary reference, which we shall also briefly touch upon.

AshtaJanapada System and the Republican Democracy
For those who have read Hindi literature, Acarya Chaturasena needs no introduction. A lovely Hindi author and an Ayurvedic physician par excellence, he was as a consequence of his profession also an expert in Sanskrit and Pali. In his magnum opus Vaishali Ki Nagarvadhu, Acarya Chaturasena actively describes from history the makeup of the Vajji Sangha (confederacy or republic in the modern sense), which had formed after the kingdom of Videha of the Mahabharata era had broken down. This Sangha consisted of eight janapadas, comprising of the eight clans of Videha, Licchavi, Kshatrik, Vajji, Ugra, Bhoja, Ikshvaku and Kaurava. Together known as the Ashtakula, the first four were the strongest and most prominent. Videha’s centre of power was Mithila, Vaishali was the center of power for the Licchavis, while Kundapur and Kollaga performed the same functions for Kshatriks and Vajjis.  The Vajji Sangha was ruled by a Rajaparishada, or a royal council, which was elected from within the ashtakula every seven years. The elected members of the parishada would allot amongst themselves the various functions of the state. The republic’s assembly also had representatives from the various guilds of merchants, artisans and even farmers. Parallels may be seen with the ancient Greece at the same time around 6th Century B.C.; however, the difference however may be noted that unlike the much romanticized Athenian or Roman systems of democracy, it is believed that there were clear conditions laid out about the physical, mental and psychological state of the various assembly members present. Also, a king would be nominated from within the assembly, though this position was never hierarchical in nature. Moreover, as pointed out earlier, there was representation beyond just the Kshatriyas when it came to state affairs unlike the Roman or Athenian democracies, where only the warriors had a say in daily affairs of the state. Also, as Steve Muhlberger of the University of Missisauga points out, the varnas of pre-Christian-era India were not the castes of later periods, with their prohibitions on intermarriage and commensality with other groups, and that the republics involved in the political process all those who could claim, and justify the claim, to be capable of ruling and fighting.

Parakesarivarma Chola and the Kudavolai System of Constitutional Monarchy
The idea of secret ballot is not a unique one that the British have claimed to have given to the world is nothing new to India (Kalyanasundaram, 2010). In the Chola rule over large parts of India, we see the first ever identification of the process of electoral democracy using a secret ballot being utilized to determine what can be easily described in today’s modern lexicon as a local body like a municipal corporation or a grama panchayat. The earliest mention of this system of suffrage, called Kudav Olai (for those who do not understand Tamizh, kudam means pot as a ballot box, while olai refers to palm-leafs to be used a paper votes for ballot) can be found on the walls of the village temple of Utthiramerur, twenty miles from the city of Kanchipuram in Tamil Nadu. Excellently captured by the blogger R Muthuswamy, the plaque describes in detail how they conducted an election to the local assembly of the ‘Utthiramerur-caturvedi-mangalam in its own subdivision of Kaliyurkottam,’ in the presence of a returning officer. The elections were conducted in order to set up further sub-committees, particularly looking at the “Annual Committee”, “Garden Committee”, and “Tank Committee” of the village, tending to the affairs suggested by the name. Interestingly, the rules of the election to the local body clearly identified who could contest these elections through the following parameters:
In these thirty wards, those that live in each ward shall assemble and shall choose for “pot-tickets” (Kudav Olai) anyone possessing the following qualifications:
(a)    He must own more than a quarter veli of tax-paying land;
(b)    He must live in a house built on his own site;
(c)     His age must be below 70 and above 35;
(d)    He must know the Mantrabrahmana, i.e., he must know it by teaching others;
(e)    Even if one owns only one-eighth veli of land, he should have his name written on the pot-ticket to be put into the pot, in case he has learnt one Veda and one of the four bhasyas by explaining it to others.
Among those possessing the foregoing qualifications:
(f)      Only such as are well conversant with business and are virtuous shall be taken and,
(g)    One who possesses honest earnings, whose mind is pure and who has not been on any of the committees for the last three years shall also be chosen.
The scribe note, written down on the 16th day of the fourteenth year of Parantaka Chola King (mudalam parantakanin padinankavatu aandu padinaram naal) (dated to the years 919-921 A.D.), thus clearly demonstrating the active utilization of the ballot box method, which the villagers, as quoted by the scribe, vowed to use ‘till the sun and moon endure’. However, the senior officials of the court had nothing to do with this electoral democracy, which was restricted to only the smallest unit of governance. 
A Plaque From the Utthiramerur Inscription (Courtesy R Muthuswamy)

Criticisms from Within – the Challenges of Democracies Identified by Indian Literature
That there were republican systems present in ancient India is an accepted fact and presented as a case for presenting India as a modern democracy. However, the same evidences show us that most people subsequent to this period of flirtation with democracy, particularly the republican period, strongly thought otherwise. In his online essay Muhlberger notes how texts – Hindu, Buddhist, Jaina and even literary – left no opportunity wasted in making fun of the democratic system. As Muhlberger wrote,
The Lalitavistara, in an obvious satirical jab, depicts Vesali as being full of Licchavi rajans , each one thinking, "I am king, I am king," ….The Santi Parva section of the Mahabharata shows the participation of too many people in the affairs of state as being a great flaw in the republican polity….A Jaina work again criticizes ganas for being disorderly: the monks and nuns who frequent them will find themselves bullied, beaten, robbed, or accused of being spies.
This seems to be as Muhlberger points out a later period insertion, one also shared by K.P. Jayaswal in his book Hindu Polity – a Constitutional History of India in Hindu Times. Interestingly, the last mention of republics takes place around the time of the Guptas, who themselves rose with the help of the Licchavis but end the idea of the republic altogether by somehow defeating the increasing strength of the tri-mitra republics - Pushpamitra-Padhumitra-Padmamitras. Also, one must note that in both cases the forms of democracy continue to remain limited in nature – while only nominated members could assume power in the janapada, the potential nominees for the Cholan system also restrict the choice of candidates strongly, determined by land ownership among other factors.  
While one reason why a more stable power centre may have been readily accepted by society was attributed to the solidification of caste and hierarchies by the time of the Gupta empire, trade and commerce may have had a much bigger role to play. Wealth does not flow into a poor state. While Vajji was noted for their wealth and prosperity in ancient India, the unstable political climate due to constant threats and the concentration of political interests amongst the various guilds may have possibly resulted in cronyism, a practice seen too often in today’s democracies.
Thus, we see that the ideas of limited democracies were thriving in ancient India, all the way up to the 9th century A.D., when the Cholas were active. Indian democracy has also seen experimentation with both the republican as well as the constitutional monarchical forms of democracy as are seen even today in the world. However, the ideas of democracy in India were not free of criticism, and eventually the system is seen to die out. This has various signs for the sagacious to portend; however, it is a discussion for another day.

*I have tried to summarize a few key points in this blog. Any errors are regretted, and any help on the same shall be deeply appreciated. 

Swamy S., and Kalyansundaram, S. (ed.) Electronic Voting Machins - Unconstitutional and Tamperable, Vision Books 2010 ISBN 978-81-7094-798-1
Vaishali ki Nagarvadhu, Acarya Chatursena, Rajpal and Sons, 2006 edition (Hindi)
Muhlberger, S., Democracy in Ancient India, 2016, World History of Democracy
Jayaswal, K.P., Hindu Polity - a Constitutional History of India in Hindu Times, The Bangalore Printing & Publishing Co., Ltd., 1943
R. Muthuswamy, Know Your Heritage, Uthiramerur Inscriptions on Chola Kodavolai Election System, July 20, 2014
Uthiramerur Inscription, From V. Venkayya, in Annual Report on Epigraphy, 1904.

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