People's Democracy

(Weekly Organ of the Communist Party of India (Marxist)


No. 51

December 22, 2013


Fifty Years of Irfan Habib’s  The Agrarian System of Mughal India


Amol Saghar


PROFESSSOR Irfan Habib’s landmark work The Agrarian System of Mughal India: 1556-1707 (1963), recently completed its fifty years in publication. On this occasion the Centre for Economic Studies and Planning, JNU, had organised a discussion on the book on December 6, 2013. The occasion saw Professor Satish Chandra, Farhat Hasan, Utsa Patnaik, Shireen Moosvi, Najaf Haider and the author himself coming together to speak on the book.


At the outset, a two-minute silence was observed to pay tribute to Nelson Mandela, a great man whom history will always remember who had passed away on December 5. The programme began thereafter with Professor Jayati Ghosh reading a brief but an insightful letter written by Professor Amiya K Bagchi who could not make it to the occasion. The letter traced a brief outline of the book.


Following this Professor Satish Chandra in his brief but concise speech described Habib’s The Agrarian System of Mughal India as a magnum opus that has opened up newer avenues of historical research. The book has been able to open up in a large way the life of the village society. In this context he cited the example of Rajasthan, and said that the sources of the place reveal the details of the land and do not just talk about superficial things such as ploughs etc. The book, according to him, makes it crystal clear that there is scope for rural development. He concluded on a poignant note by saying that the agrarian history of India shows that, interestingly, there was no decline in agricultural production in spite of the oppression. Professor Jayati Ghosh, who was chairing the discussion remarked on Professor Satish Chandra’s expertise in analysing and making his point with such brevity that only a person of his stature and calibre was capable of doing.


Professor Satish Chandra’s talk was followed by Farhat Hasan’s discussion on the book. He described Professor Habib’s work as a masterpiece. He argued that it was not just a work on history but was also at the same time an important historical intervention. Habib has been able to show in this work the inadequacy of the Asiatic Mode of Production to the Indian scenario. Also, the fact that the village life is far from being egalitarian has been brought out very well by the scholar.  He further pointed out that in Habib’s work, though, class remains central, but, along with this he also sees caste as an important binder of relations. Hasan concluded by saying that The Agrarian System of Mughal India is a work which is adaptable to change and unlike Marx the work reveals a picture of constant move and change.


Professor Utsa Patnaik in her turn began by saying that every Marxist needs to be interested in history. She said that Professor Habib’s book is a magisterial work. She confided to those present that she was personally fascinated by the work. In this book she pointed that Habib had discussed the hierarchy of rights in land. According to her, land is the main source of economic surplus. She threw light on the fact that Habib does not mention European feudalism anywhere in the book and nor does he mention the word ‘feudalism’ in any context throughout the course of his discussion in the work. Furthermore, Habib, surprisingly, does not speak about the pre-existing appropriating class of the Sultanate. Her discussion was peppered with references from the book itself. For her the most exciting part of the book was, undoubtedly, Habib’s discussion on the over-exploitation of peasantry and the resultant peasant revolts, both of which were closely linked with the Mughal administration. In his work one can locate the echoes of the transition debate which had started in the context of Europe. She concluded by saying that the work shows the degree of meticulous scholarship that has gone in its writing.


Shireen Moosvi’s discussion of the book threw light on its lesser known facts. She said that Habib had used a mass degree of sources in his work and that it added a mass of data. One of the main criticisms of the book was that since Habib had written The Agrarian System of Mughal India with a basic Marxist framework he had overdrawn the depiction of the peasantry. Moosvi said that it was surprising and at the same time amusing that there was absolute silence on the part of the Marxist scholars and that not a word was spoken or written either of encouragement or of discouragement for the book. At the end she reiterated the point that in the entire book there is absolutely no mention of the word ‘feudalism’ to describe any sort of social relations or even in the discussion on the zamindars.


Najaf Haider in his enthralling talk said that Habib’s The Agrarian System of Mughal India allows us to see the two sharply different worlds namely the ‘urban’ and the ‘rural’. He pointed out that there are evidences to show that the Mughal India did not allow the circulation of coins anywhere within its domain. But, at the same time money was crucial to the very existence of this political entity and in the words of Irfan Habib, ‘money was made in the village and spent in the towns’.


Professor Irfan Habib was then invited to speak on this work. The master of the subject began by talking about the influence that his father Professor Mohammad Habib has had on his work. Going down the memory lane, he also narrated some very hilarious and interesting anecdotes from his younger days and the way his father brought him up. The anecdotes also showed a little known side of Professor Mohammed Habib. Habib also narrated anecdotes from his researching days and the sort of bonhomie and fruitful relationship he enjoyed with his supervisor Collin C. Davies. Habib then chose to comment on each of the preceding speakers. He said that the third edition of this work was a result of certain new arguments that were put forth by Najaf Haider on the issue of ‘price revolution’ – a topic discussed in great detail by Habib in the third edition of the work. Before concluding, he thanked the Centre for Economic Studies and Planning for honouring him by organising such an intense and thrilling discussion on the book and that he felt humbled by the gesture.


The discussion was followed by a brief session of questions and comments which added further substance to the occasion. With this a memorable event came to a fruitful conclusion.