The article that changed my life

I was recently asked to discuss a piece of writing that “changed my life.” I am going to discuss an article that I read as a student and reread many times. It is not the best article I have read. It is quite speculative, and if submitted to a journal today, may not pass the referees. It is, however, one of the most cited articles in the economic history of India. I will explain why it is so influential.

The article is “Towards a reinterpretation of nineteenth-century Indian economic history.” It was published in the Journal of Economic History in 1963. The author was an American scholar named Morris David Morris. Before I talk about the article, let me talk a little about its author.

Morris (1921-2011) was a member of that generation of American social scientists who chose India as their main field of research and contributed to developing South Asian studies in the USA. His first major work was a history of the industrial workers in Bombay city, for which he did fieldwork in the 1950s. He lived in Bombay city long enough to know many of India’s business leaders of that time. These people owned textile mills, were rich for generations, some were educated in international schools, and were sponsors of colleges, hospitals, charities, associations, music, and theatre. Some of them were conservative in their private lives, but in their public life, were modern and outward-looking.

Socializing in this milieu, Morris understood that there was a capitalist India that was cosmopolitan, global, wealthy, modern and confident. Still, most Indians were poor. Why wasn’t all of India like Bombay? Why weren’t all Indians like Bombay’s business elite that he met? What made most Indians poor?

When Morris started to write, about 1960, there were two answers to this question. One of these answers had been developed by Morris’ colleagues in the North American sociology departments and later became known as the modernization school. They said that poor countries were poor because their societies lacked modernity, like capacity for hard work, working for material gain, individualism, and enterprise. These qualities had made western societies rich, the poorer societies needed to copy them to get richer. The second answer to the question came from the poorer countries themselves. Here, radical thinkers and activists said that poor societies became poor because the western countries had exploited them through trade and colonial rule.

Morris’ exposure in Bombay must have shown him that both answers were wrong. India’s business elite was as modern as anywhere. That they were sometimes traditionalist or religious in their private lives made no difference to the quality of their enterprise. And many of these families got rich by trading within the British Empire, so it cannot be true that trade and colonial rule made the Indians poor.

What then made the average Indian poor? Morris’ writings reflect a belief that there were two different Indias, one entrepreneurial, urban, cosmopolitan and dynamic, and another trapped in poverty. The 1963 article was an attempt to explain this dualism. He started by saying that India was backward or poor not because its society, or the British Empire, or nineteenth-century trade was at fault. These very forces still produced an industrial hub like Bombay. However, much of India was agricultural, and land did not produce enough value. Thus, there were two Indias.

When Morris published the essay in 1963, many established academics based in India reacted to it very critically, sometimes suggesting (as Tapan Raychaudhuri almost openly did) that Morris had a hidden purpose in writing the essay, that he wanted to show that British colonial rule in India was not so exploitative as the radicals had claimed. His paper was a disguised defence of colonialism.morris

But beyond such feral response, there was another more constructive one. Morris made his case with several informed conjectures. Many younger scholars felt that these conjectures needed to be tested with statistical data. For example, he said that nineteenth-century trade wasn’t such a bad thing for India after all. Was he right? We need national income data and trade data to test if he was. As a result of that enterprise, the first and most reliable set of national income for colonial India was produced.

Let me end with my encounter with this article. When I did my first course in economic history, Morris and his critics were essential reading. Marxist radicals and nationalists, the people who dismissed Morris, were our gurus. I was convinced that Morris was an evil apologist of British rule in India.

Like other students in my field in the 1980s, my doctoral dissertation tested one of Morris’ conjectures, that the nineteenth-century free trade did not have a universally destructive impact of India’s artisanal industry. When I finished my work, my findings supported Morris’ conjecture. This was a bit of a surprise. A few years after this I met him in the USA and found him to be a rather different kind of character from the way he was portrayed by Indian radical historians. Senior figures in the Indian history establishment of my student days were generally aggressive, bad-tempered, ideological, and bullied students. Unlike them, Morris was a warm-hearted fun-loving liberal with a sense of humour who did a lot of charity work in poor countries.

I re-read the article and found that its basic insight that India was a divided society was powerful if a speculative one. A great deal of my own later work confirmed this big picture of a society that was structurally unequal, and not one made unequal or backward by some outside force like trade and colonialism.

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