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Narratives Of Decline

Seema Alavi

Edited by Meena Bhargava
Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 2014, pp. 235, Rs. 795.00


This book is a very useful summary of the recent debates on the decline of the Mughal Empire. Essays that mark key interventions on the issue of imperial crisis are compiled to create a narrative of decline that takes note of the various shifts in the historiography of understanding the demise of the Mughals. The interesting spread of essays is introduced to the reader with a thoughtful introduction written by one of the finest teachers of medieval Indian history in the city—Meena Bhargava. She surveys the ideas of decline from the British colonial writers to India’s nationalist historians. And draws interesting connections between the Marxist interpretations of decline and those of British administrative scholars like W.H. Moreland. The significant shift to regional histories and perspective on decline constitutes an important part of the book that ends with revisionist perspectives of the eighteenth century that throw fresh light on imperial crisis. The book brings in well-known perspectives on decline that include those that focus on individual rulers and their policies (Jadunath Sarkar) and others that look at systems and institutions (Satish Chandra, Athar Ali). Bhargava argues that the shift from the individual to systemic causes of imperial collapse need to be located in the larger changes that were shaping the writing of Indian history from the 1960s. The most prominent of these was the Marxist approach to understanding social change and that enabled the historian to move from the individual to the structures that framed him. According to Bhargava the most iconic example of this shift was the publication of Irfan Habib’s Agrarian System of Mughal India. This book revolutionized the writing of Mughal history that included theories of imperial decline as well. Its most seminal contribution was the fore-fronting of the economic history of Empire. Habib argued that Mughal land revenue system and its inherent exploitative slant was the crux of the problems that eventually gnawed at the health of the Empire and hollowed it from within. The book defined the shape of Mughal studies in India and abroad for more than three decades. It triggered huge interest in the economic aspects of Mughal functioning. As research flowed out of the concerns raised by Habib the economic history of the Mughal Empire was hugely enriched. And this coloured the thesis of decline with a very economically deterministic hue. Bhargava identifies the break from the state and ...

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