Wednesday, January 09, 2008

No big fights at the History Congress

There were no fireworks at the 68th Session of the Indian History Congress held here between December 28 and 30. The history Establishment in the country seems to be in the safe hands of the politically correct Marxists and the like-minded liberals. This was reflected in the presidential address of Suvira Jaiswal, a former professor at the Jawaharlal Nehru University of Delhi. It was entitled, “”Caste, Gender And Ideology In The Making Of India”. It is an interesting and important view, but quite predictable in its line of argument. It is no more an iconoclastic view.

Another predictable paper presented at the congress was “The Evolution of India’s Palestine Policy: A Fall From The Heights!” The theme of the paper and the exclamation mark say it all. It has been presented by Shamir Hasan, professor of West Asian Studies at the Aligarh Muslim University. It disapproves India’s new-found friendship with Israel at the cost of historical and cultural ties with the Arab countries. The paper is interesting because it is no more the view of the political Establishment.

A different and interesting presentation was that of Rubu Maloni, head, department of history at the University of Mumbai. It is the presidential address of the medieval India section of the Congress. Her paper, “Presence and Response: Europeans in 17th Century Gujarat” paints a lively picture of the capitalist economy and money market of the state, especially in port cities like that of Surat. She explains the sophisticated and complex system of brokers and sub-brokers who had emerged in the transactions with the European traders.

“Brokers advised their clients on cumbersome details such as the exchange rates of different currencies and regional variations on weights. There were two tiers of brokers – general and sub brokers. The latter could be more usefully described as commodity brokers, as in indigo or textiles.”

She also offers a profile of the merchant capitalists of the time: “The most striking feature of Gujarati cities and towns was the mercantile community. This section of indigenous society remained in constant touch with the Europeans. A bourgeois class with considerable resources of money capital existed, whose members were growing into capitalist entrepreneurs, engaged in high finance.”

And she goes on to list some of the merchant notables, which reads like a who’s who list of the millionaires of the day: “Individual Surat merchants, like Hari Vaishya, Haji Abdul Nabi, Mirza Mahmud, Khwaja Nizam, Benidas, Tulsidas and members of the Parekh family controlled the wholesale trade, covering a large area. Syndicates dominated by Virji Vora bought up entire cargoes of foreign goods.”

This should offer a clue to the puzzled contemporary Gujarat-watchers about the economic vibrancy of the state in 2007.

Then there are the pleasant surprises as well. One of the more interesting ones is the one based on Shireen Moosvi’s paper, “The Convresations of Jahanir 1608-22: Table Talk On Religion”. We learn that it was recorded by one Abdu’s Sattar with the permission of Jahamgir. It was published for the first time in Teheran in 2006, based on a manuscript in possession of a private collector. It was called ‘Majalis-I Jahangiri.

Moosvi shows that Jahangir was very nearly a free thinker, and that he thought that it was acceptable if a Muslim converted to Christianity. He ordered Abdu’s Sattar to learn Portuguese to translate Christian works. Abdu’s Sattar did it with much devotion. Jahangir thought that Sattar had become a Christian but was hiding the fact. Sattar denied that he became a Christian. Jahangfir assured him that he did not mind even if Sattar became one!

On 19 July, 1610, Jahangir told Sattar that he had no objection if he (Sattar) were to become a Christian. Sattar asked Jahangir if he was being ordered to become a Christian. Jahangir told him: “I have not so ordered, but if you are convinced of its truth and reason, convert to it.” But Sattar clarified that it was not so.

So, these were the exciting and interesting vignettes that emerged from the history congress even as it seemed that it was toeing the politically correct line!

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