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Let us begin though by sketching very broadly the received wisdom and the
current state of the historiography on the Mughals. It is often stated that
modem studies of the Mughals are dominated by the ’Aligarh school’, a
statement that might itself be open to controversy. Is there an ’Aligarh
school’ in medieval Indian history? If so, what are the main propositions it
has put forward? A consideration of Medieval India-A Miscellany, an
occasional publication from the Centre for Advanced Study, Department
of History, Aligarh Muslim University, may leave the reader in doubt.’’ The Miscellany is precisely that, an eclectic collection of points of view; if

one thing dominates these essays, it is a basic reliance on Persian source
material, although even here there are some exceptions. And reliance on
sources in a particular language is scarcely enough to define a ’school’.

The ’Aligarh school’ may then partially be a misnomer (just like other
similar labels, such as the so-called ’Cambridge school’ of Indian history).
But what is normally meant when the term is used is something quite
precise, denoting an adherence to a particular set of propositions in relation
to the Mughal state and its interaction with the society of the time.
These propositions cannot be associated with all those who have contributed
to the Miscellany or who have been associated with Aligarh;
rather, the key writings are those of Irfan Habib, Athar Ali, Noman
Ahmad Siddiqi, Iqtidar Alam Khan, Shireen Moosvi, and–despite his
lack of formal attachment to Aligarh-Tapan Raychaudhuri. The writings
of K.A. Nizami or S.A.A. Rizvi cannot be seen as belonging to the same
approach as the above writers, nor can those of S. Nurul Hasan. In the
case of Satish Chandra, we must distinguish between his earlier writings
(which are of a piece with the views of Habib, Athar Ali et al.), and more
recent musings by him on the eighteenth century.

Having made this clear, let us examine the core propositions of the so-called
‘Aligarh school’. They, in my understanding, are as follows. 

1) On chronology: The main focus is on the period from Akbar to
Aurangzeb, which is to say 1556 to 1707. This is the period dealt with
for example in the major text produced by the ’school’; Irfan Habib’s
The Agrarian System of Mughal India [1556-1707} (Bombay, 1963). . Even within this period, the main focus is on the reigns of Akbar and
Aurangzeb themselves. This also means giving overwhelming importance to certain texts, of which the ’most favoured status’ is extended to the
A’in-i Akbari, of Abu’l Fazl, produced in the reign of Akbar. It is
argued moreover that the key Mughal institutions were put in place by
Akbar, and remained there under Jahangir and Shahjahan, only to
come under challenge during the reign of Aurangzeb. We note that

both the early period of Mughal rule (including both Babur’s and
Humayun’s reigns), and the post-Aurangzeb era, are given short shrift.’

2) The nature of power: The empire in the years under examination is
portrayed as a highly centralised and bureaucratised ’absolutism’. Such
however was apparently not the case under Babur and Humayun, nor
under Aurangzeb’s successors. Manifestations of this precocious
centralisation are in the Mughal revenue-system, mansabdari, the
coinage system, and the high degree of control exercised over society in
general, on which more below. 

3) Extractive character: The Mughal state is thought to have had a massive
impact on producers, extracting their surplus almost wholly. In
Raychaudhuri’s portrayal in The Cambridge Economic History of India,
the Mughal state was ’an insatiable Leviathan (with) … unlimited
appetite for resources’, which had the peasantry ’reduced to bare subsistence’.

4) Spendthrift elite: This extractive character implied in turn massive
concentration of resources in the hands of the elite. However, the
surplus extracted, it is argued, was used unproductively for conspicuous
consumption, including of imports. One of the reasons why technology
remained static was this elite attitude, which was lacking in scientific
curiosity and technological application.’ 

5) Irrelevance of ideology: ’Ideology’, usually read as ’religion’, may be
seen as largely irrelevant for purposes of historical analysis. The main
contradictions and tensions are to be viewed as structural, and flow
from the clash of interests rather than ideological perspectives. Even the
reasons for the curious elite ideology mentioned above (proposition 4) are not investigated, but treated as given. Part of the reason for this
appears to be the need to use certain selected texts quite literally, rather
than consider the possibility that they might be ideologically motivated.
The notion of the ’normative’ text thus does not feature in these
writings for the most part. 

6) Sterility of trade: This proposition appears to flow largely from (4).
Imports are seen as largely required to service elite consumption. Since
this position bears a close resemblance to the one espoused by eighteenthcentury
physiocratic literature, it is natural that the ’Aligarh school’
opposes its writings to those of ’bullionist’ historians, who it portrays as
praising trade because it brought precious metals into the economy. However, even for the ’Aligarh school’ trade may not be wholly irrelevant
in one specific sense. This is in terms of the potentially destabilising
effects of the bullion inflow through inflation in the seventeenth century,
the so-called ’Price Revolution’. 

7) Eighteenth-century decline: This proposition has, more than any other,
attracted attention, although not even all of the ’Aligarh school’ (as we
have defined it) have the same opinion on the question. Tapan Raychaudhuri,
for example, apparently does not subscribe to the view of
a decline in the economy in the eighteenth century, in his contributions
to the two volumes of the Cambridge Economic History of
India
.  Most fervently attached to the proposition are Athar Ali and
Irfan Habib, with the latter having first articulated his position in the
closing chapter of his Agrarian System. He argued there that the
jagirdari
system, whose very nature promoted short-term exploitation
of the peasantry, combined with other factors such as inflation to
provoke a ’crisis’, manifested in widespread peasant rebellions against
the Mughal state. This crisis came to a head already in the last years of
Aurangzeb’s reign, and continued through much of the eighteenth
century, leading to the generalised ’subversion of peasant agriculture’.
The eighteenth century was in his view a period when ’the gates were
opened to reckless rapine, anarchy and foreign conquest’.

– 

Sanjay Subrahmanyam, “The Mughal state−−Structure or process? Reflections on recent western historiography.” Indian Economic Social History Review 29(3), 1992. pp. 293-296

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