The History of Indian Economic History
While there is a long tradition of both historical and economic thinking in the Indian subcontinent, modern economic history may be dated from the late nineteenth century. From the early pioneers of economic history, including Mahadev Govind Ranade and Romesh Chander Dutt, the field reached a high level in India, giving rise to a stellar set of practitioners and an impressive body of scholarship, ranging from Irfan Habib’s studies of the Mughal empire to Amiya Bagchi’s analyses of the colonial economy. In the last century and a half, three main lines of thinking may be identified in Indian economic history. The first is the early nationalist school inaugurated by Ranade and Dutt. The turn to history for these thinkers was part of an agenda to develop an “Indian economics,” which was attuned to the peculiarities of India. A historical approach was essential to this intellectual project. The search for an Indian economics went largely into decline from the 1930s and in faculties of economics the study and teaching of economic history was of secondary importance for several decades. The second line of economic history may be dated from the 1950s and emerges from a growing influence of Marxism, whose enormous impact was felt by both economists and historians. The final line emerged in the 1960s at the great powerhouse of both economics and economic history in recent decades, the Delhi School of Economics. This represented to some extent a revival of economic history within the ranks of economists. The flourishing state of economic history in India in the 1960s and 1970s represented a confluence of different forces. Similarly, the decline of economic history from its highpoint of those years is due to multiple factors as well as broad changes in both historical practice and economic thinking. The focus of this essay is on the evolution of economic history within India itself. Important contributions to Indian economic history have come from scholars located outside the country, but that work is for the most part not taken up in this essay, although references to some of these contributions is inevitable, especially those that shaped economic history writing in India itself. Nonetheless, the purpose of the essay is to chart the development of this branch of history in modern India. Nationalism and Economic History
Mahadev Govind Ranade is widely acknowledged to be the father of Indian nationalist economics, or Indian political economy. He was born in western India in 1842 and was in instructor in economics at Elphinstone College for a decade and a half where he taught Adam Smith and John Stuart Mill, who was the main figure on the syllabus, but to give his students a “wider perspective of political economy,” he studied Malthus, Bastiat, Ramsay, McCulloch and Senior.1 Indian nationalist economics had two goals. The first was the well known critique of the economic impact of British rule in India. The second goal, although less recognized but no less important, was to reject the universalism of economic theory and to construct a framework which captured the unique features of the Indian economy. As Ranade put it in his seminal essay, “Indian Political Economy,” delivered as a lecture at the Deccan College in Pune in 1892, “The same teachers and statesmen, who warn us against certain tendencies in our political aspirations . . . seem to hold that the truths of economic science, as they have been expounded in our most popular English text-books, are absolutely and demonstrably true, and must be accepted as guides of conduct for all time and place whatever may be the stage of national advance. Ethnical, social, juristic, ethical, or economical differences in the environments are not regarded as having any influence in modifying the practical application of these truths.”2 Indian political economy was an economics rooted in the social,...
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