Sunday, 10 April 2011

New insights into Indian history?

A few days ago I was reading this book on the Russian Civil War of 1606 and the Times of Trouble. The author, Prof. Chester Dunning has discussed at length the impact of changing weather patterns and increasing population on food sufficiency, food prices and the consequent political upheavals that rocked Eastern Europe in late 16th Century.

The book took me back to the time when I was doing my masters in History (admittedly by distance education). I remember studying the concept of 'auxiliary' sciences. The term refers to the use of findings from research in one field of study to gain insights into another. The above example- using demographic and meteorology data to gain a better understanding of the political environment in late 16th century Europe- is a striking example of the use of auxiliary sciences.

As I read through it, the question that came to my mind is whether such a thing has ever been done by researchers of Indian history. I am no historian and I have little idea about developments in the field of historical studies in India, but there exists to my knowledge not a single work where the impact of demographic factors like population or land-holding patterns on the political environement was researched.

Its a well known fact that 1921 was the year of the great divide: from that point on, India's population started increasing rapidly, a trend that continues to this day. In what way did the rising population impact food sufficiency and the size of land holdings? Given the fact that India was a far more agrarian society back then, rising population must have surely had an adverse impact on both.

The question that naturally follows is about the impact of the changing demographics on social and political structures in rural India. The reason why this point needs to be studied is that most historians of India's struggle for independence tend to focus on the elites- the leaders and the manner in which their actions and attitudes affected the struggle for independence. The whole approach looks flawed to me, given that the Indian leaders worked at creating a mass base and the masses in India were simply not educated enough to understand complex terms like dominion status or nationality- British rule must have meant little to the villagers whose perspectives hardly extended outside their native village or district.

Given that background, a study of the evolution of demographic factors like population and the size of land holdings and its impact on the socio-political structures of rural India will surely throw up new learnings on the evolution of rural Indian society and polity. Up until now, Indian historians have obsessed too much over developments that affected urban India to give a thought to the socio-political undercurrents affecting more than two thirds of the population.

Sadly, little documentary information must be available on the subject- its hard to imagine old reports and documents pertaining to the thousands of villages in India being available for study. Perhaps the use of auxiliary sciences is the only way forward...if anyone cares to do so.

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