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18th Century Debate in India

Discuss the ways in which recent historical writings have challenged the
view that the 18th century was a Dark Age in India?
The 18th century has been a subject of historical debate among scholars. It
represents a phase of transition between medieval and modern periods. The
decline of Mughal power in the 18th century was characterized by the rise of
autonomous states during the same period. Earlier the historians regarded this
period as crisis torn but recent researches have tried to study 18th century states
as separate entities possessing elements of dynamism and growth.
The 18th century has been conventionally viewed as a period of decline,
anarchy, and economic decay or simply put as the Dark Age. It was held at the
decline of Mughal state corresponded with an overall decline.
According to James Mills, he opined that the coming of the British rescued
India from its gloomy existence. However, the recent historiography has refuted
this structure of overall gloom and opines that the period was infact marked by
the rise of regional powers and reconfiguration of economic and political
The 18th century polities should also be seen in the context of continuity with
the Mughal political system and also changes introduced to suit the new
political situation.
The division of the 18th century into two periods of transition by Seema Alavi:
Gradual decline of the Mughal Empire, especially after the death of
Aurangzeb in 1707 and the subsequent rise of the regional political order
Consolidation of British colonial power through English East India
Company (EIC) After Battle of Plassey (1757) and Battle of Buxar (1767)
EIC founded in 1600 by a Royal Charter, outsets the Dutch, the French, the
Portuguese and other regional powers by the second half of the 18th century.
The 18th century reflected the political transformation from Mughal decline to
British colonialism but the socio-economic forces at the local level continued to
operate as before but the local groups shifted their political allegiance. With the
decline of Mughal Empire the virtually independent zamindars performed the
task of collection of revenue and the local rulers used these resources for
sustaining court and armies. Several types of political formations emerged in
this period ranging from successor states to zamindaris which later got absorbed
into the category of Princely states under the British.

The early British writers of Indian history painted the 18th century in dismal
colour since they wished to demonstrate that their predecessors were
incompetent. The contemporary Persian works also portrayed the period as
anarchic. The Persian writers were patronized by the nobles and with the
decline of the Mughal Empire their position was adversely affected.
The earliest interpretation of 18th century is contained in Sir Jadu Nath
Sarkars History of Bengal Vol. II and The Fall of Mughal Empire
Volume IV in which the 18th century was categorized into pre-British period
and the British period. He propounded a Dark Age postulate of the 18th century,
which has been refuted and challenged by scholars like Athar Ali, Satish
Chandra and Muzaffar Alam. It is based on an unsustainable premise focusing
on degeneration which eroded the political organization which was a
consequence of incompetent kings and nobles and their extravagant lifestyles.
Historians like Athar Ali refer to the rise of successor states in the 18th century
but feel that these should be analysed within the frame work of Mughal decline.
His fresh interpretation of Mughal decline in an article in the Modern Asian
Studies provided new insights into the understanding of the problem of
degeneration of Mughal Empire and the 18th century.
According to M. Alam, the 18th century was caught between the grandeur of the
Mughals and the indignity of colonial rule.
According to Satish Chandra, the end of Aurangzebs reign represented the
beginning of 18th century and this late medieval period was marked by
transition brought about by the break down of the Mughal imperial system.
The traditional historiography beginning with the decline of the Mughal
Empire viewed its decline against the light of:
The religious policies of Aurangzeb leading to Hindu reaction as
manifested by the peasant rebellions;
Jagirdari and Mansabdari crisis;
High rate of land revenue demanded by the Mughal state leading to the
peasant rebellion, thereby perpetuating the agrarian crisis;
Shortage of Jagirs especially after the conquests of Deccan and the
subsequent failure of incorporating the increasing number of nobles in the Jagir
Cultural decline of India in terms of technology, economic and intellectual
spheres and the parallel rise of Europe in these fields.
This hired belief to the 18th century as the Dark Age. Following this line of
argument, the rise of regional powers the Sikhs, the Marathas, and the
Satnamis, etc. was seen in terms of support by the oppressed peasantry or
within the framework of the functioning of Mughal agrarian system.

The recent historiography questions the notion of the overarching centralized

Mughal state. They emphasis the necessity of Mughal state to form and seek
support and cooperation of local magnets and powers for various reasons:
collection of revenue, maintenance of law and order, etc., which would ensure
relative stability at the supra level. The decline of the Mughal authority at the
supra-level did not translate into an overall decline but merely reconfiguration
of political, social and economic relations and that there were degrees of
continuity. The rise of the regional powers in the 18th century is seen in terms of
the increasing attempts of the already existing local/regional powers to assert
their independence.
According to C. A. Bayly, the 18th century witnessed devolution of not only
political but also economic dynamics to the lower levels of sovereignty
regional rulers, small potentates and even the little rajas of the villages.
The second half of the 18th century saw the transition to colonial rule. The
debate is between those who believed that the colonial rule changed the society
and was a critical break from the pre-colonial past and economy. Recent
research has shown that the colonial rule adopted itself to the indigenous
situation of the 18th century and marked continuity with the economy, society
and culture of the pre-colonial days. This view is adopted by the revisionist
historiography and has emphasized the vitality and buoyancy of the regional
politics and so forth against the earlier dark age historiography.
In the 18th century, one observes several strands of development. While on one
hand, Mughal rule declined, whereas on the other hand, the century was marked
by rise of regional power. The political formations which emerged as a result of
the decline of Mughal Empire are regarded as the 18th century debate.