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The Asian side of the world

Jean-François Sabouret

Part one. Regional dynamics and globalisation

An open history of India in Asia

Claude Markovits

Texte intégral

1May 2005

2The attention given in recent times to the rising power of China and India by the media as well as our political leaders is both welcoming and intriguing for a historian studying India. Intriguing, because one would have to be particularly blind or ill-informed to ignore the fact that these two large countries, representing approximately 40% of the world’s population, were inevitably going to gain increasing importance in the world due to the rate of growth in both economies. Welcoming, because this awareness, although somewhat delayed, could help us reject the Eurocentric (and American) vision of the world that has long dominated historical studies in the West, to offer a more accessible and global history.

3The fact remains that this awareness is rather unequal: if, to the majority of observers, the future of China seems to encompass a continuous progress that should enable it to catch up with the most advanced countries in about thirty years from now, the prognosis for India is generally more reserved. All the stumbling blocks that remain are highlighted, and India’s capacity to overcome them and to embark on the noble path that China seems to have already taken, is challenging. Being neither an economist nor an expert on what the future holds, I shall carefully avoid any prognosis on the foreseeable evolution of these two Asian giants. I will, however, try to use history to create a comparison that can cast new light on the present and consequently, on the future, as well.

4In a recent book that sparked much attention (The Great Divergence, Princeton University Press, 2000), the American sinologist and historian, Kenneth Pomerantz, offered a new interpretation of what he called the “great divergence” between Europe and Asia. According to Pomerantz, this is a relatively recent phenomenon, dating back to the beginning of the 19th century, and that nothing in the earlier histories of these two continents had allowed this to be predicted. Instead of underlining the long-term structural differences between the two continents as historians of “the Rise of the West” tend to do, Pomerantz decided to embark on a different line of research. Firstly, he conducted a comparison between the most dense and the most advanced regions of Europe and the Yang-Tse area of China (together with Japan) and secondly, illustrated the extent of similarities between the two. Pomerantz attributed the slowing down of Asia in the 19th century not to structural weaknesses, but to the possible advantage of a cheaper source of energy (coal) as well as the control of natural resources in the New World, accounting for northwestern Europe. This therefore allowed certain countries to avoid the “ecological” crisis that had struck the Far East, causing a certain slowing down of the economy in stark contrast to European dynamism. I have chosen to mention Pomerantz here because his book, although based essentially on a comparison between China and northwestern Europe, includes some relevant material that also regards India. India, together with China and Japan, appears to be a potential alternative country for an economic take-off that has yet to happen, and the author, relying on a recent historiography, is in a position to highlight certain similarities between 17th century India and Europe, as well as with China. Nevertheless, he appears to believe that in the 18th century, India had already fallen behind China and Japan, and was no longer really “in the race”. Without going too deeply into this, I would like to use Pomerantz as a starting point for interpreting the place of India in dominant historiography. India still seems to be considered as the “other”, for it does not quite fit into Europe (in the context of “Orientalist” thought mechanisms as described by Edward Said), nor does it fit into the category of East Asia.

5In mainstream thought, India’s “otherness” is linked to its closure, to its existence as a separate planet with its own rules, moving around an orbit of its own, different from the rest of humanity. Although the idea that India lies on the fringes of human development comes from eminent thinkers, having first been put forward by Hegel in a famous text, Phenomenology of the Spirit, and subsequently under a different form, by the great Louis Dumont in his Homo Hierarchicus, this idea is becoming increasingly difficult to compare with what we know of the history of the sub-continent. India, far from being isolated, has always been regarded as a place of trans-Asian movements, including shifts of populations, exchange of merchandise, ideas and texts, the inventory of which has only just begun and will be one of the major tasks for tomorrow’s historians. Across the Himalayan border, China and India have always maintained an active relationship; Buddhist monks crossed the highest passages in the world to preach the message of the “Enlightened One” to the Chinese people, who became enthusiastic followers of Buddhism at about the same time that it disappeared from India. Chinese travellers in turn braved and witnessed the dangers of the journey involved when undertaking a pilgrimage to visit the places where the Buddha attained znlightenment. In the 14th century, Hindu traders regularly visited the Chinese port of Quanzhou (Zaitun), where the remains of a temple have been excavated. Expeditions of Admiral Zheng Jo at the beginning of the 15th century and his arrival on the southwest coast of India, and the remains of fishing nets found at Cochin, show a distinctive Chinese influence. The Portuguese, who arrived on the coasts of India towards the end of the 15th century in search of spices and to convert people to Christianity, found the Indian Ocean enmeshed in a commercial network, with its centre in Gujarat. Tomé Pirés wrote in his Suma Oriental, “Cambay (then one of the main ports of Gujarat) has two arms, one that extends right up to Aden (where the shipping route of the Red Sea arrived) and the other up to Malacca”, a vast marketplace where India, the East Indies, China and Japan would meet. After trying to destroy this network that they wrongly believed was controlled by their enemies (the Moors), the Portuguese were forced to join in, and this was also the case for the Dutch and later for the English, who, in order to finance their purchase of spices in the Moluccas, scoured the Indian coasts for calico cloth to barter for spice. The East India Company took control over India during the second half of the 18th century and right up to the first two decades of the 19th century. This was not the reason for which Europeans began to take part in Asian trade, but rather as a consequence of the Franco-English rivalry in South India that led the East India Company to forge a powerful military force. This military force required funding from local regions, which they took from the land revenues of the rich province of Bengal.

  • 1 The record of which continues to provoke a heated debate, on which no agreement has yet been reach (...)
  • 2 The Global World of Indian Merchants, Cambridge University Press, 2000.
  • 3 As illustrated by the author in Indian Business and Nationalist Politics, Cambridge University Pre (...)
  • 4 The history of which the author briefly outlines in a special issue of L’Histoire in June 2003.

6This brief venture back into the past allows the reader to understand the extent to which the history of India, outside of the Turkish, Afghan and Mogul invasions, is accessible to the outside world and connected to other histories; a history spanning over six centuries and connected in particular to the histories of Asia and Europe; ties, which were not weakened even under military invasions. India did not wait until 1991 to open itself to the outside world, as newspapers would like us to believe. In fact, during British colonisation1, India, far from being subjected to an “exclusive” colonial regime, was one of the most open markets in the world. Contrary to what happened in the Dutch Indies, which was also an open market –, this was not a one-way opening. A number of British nationals, mostly Scottish, found opportunities in India and were able to make their fortunes there, India’s participation in the world economy also opened interesting perspectives to various merchant communities in India, starting with the Parsis, who played an essential role in the opium trade, the main driver for the “opening up” of China. My own research is based on the global expansion of trade networks from the Sindh province during the colonial period2. One of these networks, based in the city of Hyderabad in Sindh (now in Pakistan), specialised in selling Indian silk and curios at first and later began trading Chinese and Japanese goods. The trading of such goods took place in the area extending from Indonesia to Central America, passing through the Middle East, North Africa, West Africa, South America, the Caribbean Islands and Central Europe. The period of India’s relative economic “closure”, around 1920-1980, was a consequence of the British downfall after the First World War. This in turn caused Great Britain to establish closer control over Indian commercial and financial movements, at the same time as the rise of the nationalist movement, coinciding with the strengthening of the Indian capital3, exerting strong pressure in favour of the adoption of a protectionist regime. Built behind a wall of custom barriers in the inter-war period and during the Second World War, Indian industry was not really able to face the international competition once independence was gained in 1947. The compromise between the “socialist” state and private capital became the basis of the Indian economic policy between 1955 (beginning of the Five Year Plans) and 1980, which saw, with the return of Indira Gandhi to power, the beginning of a “liberal” evolution that accelerated after 1991. India’s closure, however, was never absolute. Indian merchant communities, particularly those from Gujarat and Sindh, continued to play an active role, and sometimes even a dominant one, in the economies of several countries of Africa and Asia, whereas the middle-class immigrants who arrived in the United States from the mid-1960s, (as well as in Canada and Australia) were to play a role of growing importance in the high technology sector, together with the Chinese. The capacity of Indian businessmen to operate on a global scale, which was sometimes doubted, is clearly demonstrated by the example of the Mittal group, founded by a Marwari businessman, belonging to one of India’s traditional business communities, and which has become the world leader in the steel industry in the space of twenty years. Its founder was recently named as the world’s third richest man after Bill Gates and Warren Buffet by Fortune magazine. No Chinese businessman has had such success. The “diaspora” of Indian business, even if its role is less obvious than that of the Chinese diaspora, is nonetheless a centre of wealth and expertise in the world. Its ties with the Indian economy, however, remain fairly limited, and it is probably here that it is distinctively different from China. It is well known that “foreign” investments in China are essentially Chinese investments, having made a detour via Hong Kong or other places, or made by the Chinese abroad. This is not the case in India: although the diaspora has recently increased investments in India, they still remain limited. On the other hand, the internationalisation of large Indian companies, such as Tata4, is a phenomenon that has reached great heights in recent times.

7India thus has a significant advantage in the growth race with China, one of them being that it has a better knowledge of the outside world, a legacy of old contacts established with neighbouring and distant countries that were never applied into a “dependant” type of Chinese tributary system. What India will do with this advantage, and most of all, the manner in which the profits from an increased participation in the world economy will be distributed among the population, will depend on the course chosen by its leaders and the elite in the coming years, not forgetting that in a democratic system such as India’s, the agreement of the people is necessary and can never be taken for granted. Despite the poverty affecting a large part of the population, the Indian public is probably more aware of its democratic rights than the Chinese. This could be a plus point for the future, rather than a handicap.

  • 5 “Indian communities in China 1842-1949”, in Bickers R. and Henriot C. (eds), New Frontiers, Manche (...)
  • 6 Published in Foreigners in Shanghai, 1842-1949, 2003.

8A better knowledge of the history of these two large Asian countries would allow us to better contextualise contemporary developments and avoid hasty generalisations. Greater interaction between experts on India and China (and other Asian regions) would be welcomed, in order to be able to build a more accurate picture of Asia. I have tried to contribute to this by participating in the volume of Nouvelle Clio on East and South Asia in the 19th and 20th centuries and by publishing an article on Indian communities in China5, which is probably the first of its kind on the subject, and which was recently translated into Chinese6. Furthermore, I am involved in setting up a research team on India and Asia at the Centre for Indian and South Asian Studies and I am thus taking advantage of this platform to invite non-Indian specialists to participate in the centre’s work.


1 The record of which continues to provoke a heated debate, on which no agreement has yet been reached.

2 The Global World of Indian Merchants, Cambridge University Press, 2000.

3 As illustrated by the author in Indian Business and Nationalist Politics, Cambridge University Press, 1985.

4 The history of which the author briefly outlines in a special issue of L’Histoire in June 2003.

5 “Indian communities in China 1842-1949”, in Bickers R. and Henriot C. (eds), New Frontiers, Manchester, Manchester University Press, 2000.

6 Published in Foreigners in Shanghai, 1842-1949, 2003.

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