Slowly India recovered from the after-effects of the revolt of 1857-58. Despite British policy, powerful forces were at work changing India, and a new social consciousness was arising. The political unity of India, contact with the west, technological advances, and even the misfortune of a common subjection, led to new currents of thought, the slow development of industry, and the rise of a new movement for national freedom. The awakening of India was two-fold: she looked to the west and, at the same time, she looked at herself and her own past.
The coming of the railway to India brought the industrial age on its positive side; so far only the negative aspect, in the shape of manufactured goods from Britain, had been in evidence. In 1860 the duty on imported machinery, imposed so as to prevent the industrialization of India, was removed, and large-scale industry began to develop, chiefly with British capital. First came the jute industry of Bengal, with its nerve centre at Dundee in Scotland; much later, cotton mills grew up in Ahmedabad and Bombay, largely with Indian capital and under Indian ownership; then came mining. Obstruction from the British Government in India continued, and an excise duty was put on Indian cotton goods to prevent them from competing with Lancashire textiles, even in India. Nothing, perhaps, reveals the police-state policy of the Government of India more than the fact that they had no department of agriculture and no department of commerce and industry till the twentieth century. It was, I believe, chiefly due to the donation of an American visitor, given for agricultural improvement in India, that a department of agriculture was started in the central government. (Even now this department is a very small affair.) A department for commerce and industry followed soon after, in 1905. Even then these departments functioned in a very small way. The growth of industry was artificially restricted and India’s natural economic development was arrested.
Though the masses of India were desperately poor and growing poorer, a tiny fringe at the top was prospering under the new conditions and accumulating capital. It was this fringe that demanded political reform as well as opportunities for investment. On the political side, the Indian National Congress was started in 1885. Commerce and industry grew slowly, and it is interesting to note that the classes who took to them were predominantly those whose hereditary occupations for hundreds of years had been trade and commerce. Ahmedabad, the new centre of the textile industry, had been a famous manufacturing and trade centre during the Mughal period and even earlier, exporting its products to foreign countries. The big merchants of Ahmedabad had their own ships for this seaborne trade to Africa and the Persian Gulf. Broach, the seaport near by, was well-known in Graeco-Roman times.
The people of Gujrat, Kathiawar, and Cutch were traders, manufacturers, merchants, and seafaring folk from ancient times. Many changes took place in India, but they carried on with their old business, adapting them to new conditions. They are now among the most prominent leaders in industry and commerce. Religion or a change of religion made no difference. The Parsees, who originally settled in Gujrat thirteen hundred years ago, may be considered as Gujratis for this purpose. (Their language has long been Gujrati.) Among the Muslims the most prominent sects in business and industry are the Khojas, Memons, and Bohras. All of these are converts from Hinduism, and all come from Gujrat, Kathiawar, or Cutch. All these Gujratis not only dominate industry and business in India, but have spread out to Burma, Ceylon, East Africa, South Africa, and other foreign countries.
The Marwaris from Rajputana used to control internal trade and finance, and were to be found at all the nerve centres of India. They were the big financiers as well as the small village’ bankers; a note from a well-known Marwari financial house would be honoured anywhere in India, and even abroad. The Marwaris still represent big finance in India but have added industry to it now.
The Sindhis in the north-west have also an old commercial tradition, and with their headquarters at Shikarpur or Hyderabad they used to spread out over central and western Asia and elsewhere. Today (that is before the war) there is hardly a port anywhere in the world where one or more Sindhi shops cannot be found. Some of the Punjabis also have been traditionally in business.
The Chettys of Madras have also been leaders in business, and banking especially, from ancient times. The word ‘Chetty’ is derived from the Sanskrit ‘Shreshthi,’ the leader of a merchant guild. The common appellation ‘Seth’ is also derived from ‘Shreshthi.’ The Madras Chettys have not only played an important part in south India, but they spread out all over Burma, even in the remoter villages.
Within each province also trade and commerce were largely in the hands of the old vaishya class, who had been engaged in business for untold generations. They were the retail and wholesale dealers and moneylenders. In each village there was a bania’s shop, which dealt in the necessaries of village life and advanced loans, on very profitable terms, to the villagers. The rural credit system was almost entirely in the hands of these banias. They spread even to the tribal and independent territories of the north-west and performed important functions there. As poverty grew agricultural indebtedness also grew rapidly, and the money-lending establishments held mortgages on the land and eventually acquired much of it. Thus the moneylender became the landlord also.
These demarcations of commercial, trading, and banking classes from others became less clearly defined as newcomers crept into various business; but they continued and are still marked. Whether they are due to the caste system, or the hold of tradition, or inherited capacity, or all of these together, it is difficult to specify. Undoubtedly among Brahmins and Kshatriyas business was looked down upon, and even the accumulation of money, though agreeable enough, was not a sufficient recompense. The possession of land was a symbol of social position, as in feudal times, and scholarship and learning were respected, even apart from possession. Under British rule government service gave prestige, security, and status, and later, when Indians were allowed to enter the Indian Civil Service, this service, called the ‘heaven-born service’—heaven being some pale shadow of Whitehall— became the Elysium of the English-educated classes. The professional classes, especially lawyers, some of whom earned large incomes in the new law courts also had prestige and high status and attracted young men. Inevitably these lawyers took the lead in political and social reform movements.
The Bengalis were the first to take to the law, and some of them flourished exceedingly and cast a glamour over their profession. They were also the political leaders. They did not fit into the growing industry, either because of lack of aptitude or other reasons. The result has been that when industry began to play an important part in the country’s life and to influence politics, Bengal lost its pre-eminence in the political field. The old current, when Bengalis poured out of their province as Government servants and in other capacities, was reversed and people from other provinces poured into Bengal, especially in Calcutta, and permeated the commercial and industrial life there. Calcutta had been and continues to be the chief centre of British capital and industry, and the English and the Scotch dominate business there; but they are being caught up by Marwaris and Gujratis. Even petty trades in Calcutta are often in non-Bengali hands. All the thousands of taxi-drivers in Calcutta, almost without an exception, are Sikhs from the Punjab.
Bombay became the centre and headquarters of Indian-owned industry, commerce, banking, insurance, etc. The Parsees, the Gujratis, and Marwaris, were the leaders in all these activities, and it is significant to note that the Maharashtrians or Marathas have played very little part in them. Bombay is a huge cosmopolitan city now but its population consists mainly of Marathas and Gujratis. The Marathas have distinguished themselves in the professions and in scholarship; they make, as one would expect, good soldiers; and large numbers of them are employed as workers in the textile mills. They are hardy and wiry and, as a province, poor; they are proud of the Shivaji tradition and of the achievements of their forefathers. The Gujratis are soft in body, gentler, richer, and perfectly at home in trade and commerce. Perhaps these differences are largely due to geography, for the Maratha country is bare and hard and mountainous while Gujrat is rich and fertile.
It is interesting to observe these and other differences in various parts of India which continue to persist, though they tend to grow less. Madras, highly intellectual, has produced and still produces distinguished philosophers, mathematicians, and scientists. Bombay is now almost entirely devoted to business with all its advantages and disadvantages. Bengal, rather backward in industry and business, has produced some fine scientists, and has especially distinguished itself in art and literature. The Punjab has produced no outstanding personalities but is a go-ahead province advancing in many fields; its people are hard-headed, make good mechanics, and are successful in small trades and petty industries. The United Provinces (including Delhi) are a curious amalgam, and in some ways an epitome of India. They are the seat of the old Hindu culture as well as of the Persian culture that came in Afghan and Mughal times, and hence the mixture of the two is most in evidence there, intermingled with the culture of the west. There is less of provincialism there than in any other part of India. For long they have considered themselves, and have been looked upon by others, as the heart of India. Indeed, in popular parlance, they are often referred to as Hindustan.
These differences, it must be noted, are geographical and not religious. A Bengali Muslim is far nearer to a Bengali Hindu than he is to a Punjabi Muslim; so also with others. If a number of Hindu and Muslim Bengalis happen to meet anywhere, in India or elsewhere, they will immediately congregate together and feel at home with each other. Punjabis, whether Muslim or Hindu or Sikh, will do likewise. The Muslims of the Bombay presidency (Khojas, Memons, and Bohras) have many Hindu customs; the Khojas (they are the followers of the Aga Khan) and the Bohras are not looked upon as orthodox by the Muslims of the north.
Muslims, as a whole, especially in Bengal and the north, not only kept away from English education for a long time, but also took little part in the growth of industry. Partly this was due to feudal modes of thought, partly (as in Roman Catholicism) to Islam’s prohibition against usury and interest on money. But, curiously enough, among the notorious moneylenders are a particular tribe of Pathans, who come from near the frontier. Muslims were thus, in the second half of the nineteenth century, backward in English education and therefore in contacts with western thought, as also in government service and in industry.
The growth of industry in India, slow and arrested as it was, gave the impression of progress and attracted attention. And yet it made practically no difference to the problem of the poverty of the masses and the overburden on the land. A few hundred thousand workers were transferred to industry out of the scores of millions of the unemployed and partially employed. This change-over was so extremely small that it did not affect the increasing ruralization of the country. Widespread unemployment and the pressure on land led to emigration of workers on a substantial scale to foreign countries, often under humiliating conditions. They went to South Africa, Fiji, Trinidad, Jamaica, Guiana, Mauritius, Ceylon, Burma, and Malaya. The small groups or individuals who found opportunities for growth and betterment under foreign rule were divorced from the masses, whose condition continued to worsen. Some capital accumulated in the hands of these groups and conditions were gradually created for further growth. But the basic problems of poverty and unemployment remained untouched.