Politicians keep bringing up history to justify what they are doing. But there is more to our past than wars, kings and palaces. TOI+ dives into the archives to tell the story of how the lives of lakhs like us changed with every whim and every resolve of kings.
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Fortunes are made and ruined by betting on history. But, instead of looking at the headline points that politicians give us, what if we widen the range of things we want to know about our history?
Across kingdoms and centuries, the one consistent thing has been how the poorest have been treated. Aurangzeb took up to one-third the crop, as did Shivaji. Tipu abolished two taxes but increased land tax.
Chauhan’s dynasty built its economy on taxes levied on locals who made a living out of extracting salt from the Sambhar lake. Begari, or forced labour, was a system prevalent across medieval India and did not go away well into the colonial period of our history.
But this was often not enough. Empires across the world were essentially warfare economies — war either funded kingdoms or drained their reserves. One of the reasons researchers cite for the decline of the
empire, for instance, is the incessant warfare during Aurangzeb’s reign. It drained his reserves.
It is how Indian empires realised that trade could be put to use to tilt the balance of power in their favour. Shivaji, for instance, really wanted the salt industry to grow well so the farmers would have something to fall back on during non-farming seasons. He raised prices and they reached a point which forced buyers to turn to Portuguese traders instead. But these buyers still had to pass through Shivaji’s territory to get to the Portuguese traders. Shivaji introduced a transit duty so high that the price difference didn’t really matter anymore. High prices and captive buyers — both secured.
These episodes tell us a lot more about our history than the condensed tags of ‘nationalist’ or ‘fanatic’ do. Economic historians have been working on this for ages. Right now, though, the line between academic relevance and real-world implications is all but gone. In a TOI+ series on Indian economic history starting tomorrow, we will explore how life was under rulers who evoke forceful feelings even now.
(The big takeaway? Things don’t change much for the powerless.)