India, Modernity and the Great Divergence – Why the Industrial Revolution and Modern Economic Growth First Occurred in England

by Kaveh Yazdani

How come the world’s eight wealthiest men are as rich as half the planet’s population? Why do the vast bulk of the super-rich come from the West despite the rise of Chinese and Indian capital? And why are most economically prosperous regions of the world still disproportionately located in the West?
The fascinating riddle of why Europeans became the masters of the world and ideas of Europe’s supposed superiority vis-à-vis the rest of the globe already haunted the minds of eminent scholars such as Montesquieu, Adam Smith, Karl Marx and Max Weber. But partly as a result of China’s and India’s economic upsurge and since the seminal contributions by Jared Diamond, David Landes, André Gunder Frank and Kenneth Pomeranz there has been an increased interest in issues of economic development and underdevelopment as well as a boom in world comparative studies on the possible historical roots of modern economic growth and Western Europe’s global supremacy in the 19th century. There are few controversies in current history writing and historical sociology that have been as hotly discussed as the rise of the West and so-called Great Divergence debates. Needless to mention, the period between the 16th and 18th century witnessed major historical watersheds. The reasons for these key junctures help us to better understand the structure of our contemporary world.
A great amount of studies that have addressed the important question of Western Europe’s historical ascent to world domination adhere to the Eurocentric schools of thought. Yet, during the past two decades, especially adherents of the ‘California School’ and a number of British scholars have increasingly engaged in the arduous work of understanding and analyzing the ‘West and the rest’ from a non-Eurocentric and global perspective. While Eurocentrists mostly emphasize internal processes, non-Eurocentrists bring to attention the importance of external factors, contingencies and the way in which the connected histories of Europe, Asia, Africa and the Americas contributed to Western socio-economic development. The causes of the Great Divergence lie at the heart of the debate. The lively discussion is mostly concerned with the reasons behind the Industrial Revolution and why it took off in England and not in other European core areas or advanced regions of China. Few historians and social scientists have examined Mughal and post-Mughal India relative to the rise of the West and the journey towards modernity from a particularly ‘Indian perspective’. Although there are a number of articles that deal with this important macro-historical puzzle, there are only few monographs that have examined South Asia in detail (see e.g. Parthasarathi 2011; Studer 2015). This is rather surprising as India was the textile workshop of the world and one of the most vibrant economic regions of the 17th and 18th century along with the Chinese Ming and Qing Empires.
India, Modernity and the Great DivergenceTo fill this gap, I have extensively studied India’s journey towards modernity in my India, Modernity and the Great Divergence: Mysore and Gujarat (17th to 19th C.), published by Brill earlier this year (2017). For the main part, I examined and analyzed the socio-economic, techno-scientific, military, political and institutional developments of the subcontinent. The focus is on two of the historically most dynamic regions of South Asia: Mysore (Southern India) under the Muslim rule of Haidar ‘Ali and Tipu Sultan during the second half of the 18th century and Gujarat (North-Western India) between the 17th and early 19th centuries. Primary sources from archives in India, England, France and Germany, as well as the latest secondary sources in English, French, German and Persian have been consulted for this purpose.
In order to explain phenomena such as the reasons behind the Industrial Revolution and the rise of the West, most historians and sociologists from both the Eurocentric and non-Eurocentric spectrum have put forward rather mono-causal explanations, merely focusing on a few factors that potentially triggered Western Europe’s take-off. Holistic explanations remain rare. Therefore in my study, I argue that a totalizing approach is more capable of shedding light on the complexity of the matter. What caused the Great Divergence was a combination of factors, a global dialectical conjuncture based on a concatenation of internal, external, long-term, short-term, continuous and contingent factors. Hence, the level of market integration, wages, living standards and the causes of techno-scientific innovations in comparative perspective, global contexts (e.g. competition in the world market), world-wide exchange and global entanglements (e.g. diffusion of knowledge), politics, institutions and the role of the state, the level of production and manufacture, the emergence of capitalist social relations, coercion, force, violence, warfare, culture and the role of chance and accident need to be incorporated and combined into an overarching narrative to do justice to the intricacies at hand. In this spirit, my survey attempts to bridge the gap between Eurocentrics and reverse-Orientalists and, thus, suggest a different reading and understanding of the ‘West and the rest’ question.
The upshot of this study is that Gujarat’s and Mysore’s level of capitalist development, the depth of secular philosophical discussion, the level of advancement of science, secular education, circulation of knowledge, secularization of society, institutional efficiency, property rights, the nascent bourgeois class consciousness, inter-communal and proto-national identity formations seem to have been less developed than in advanced parts of 17th and 18th century Western Europe, especially England, France and the Dutch Republic and, except for the missing rise of the North-East Asian bourgeoisie, also less vigorous than in advanced parts of China and Japan. Furthermore, contingent geo-climatic circumstances were probably more apt in Western Europe, implying lesser degrees of South Asian transport capacities (during the wet season) and market integration, even though its effects should not be exaggerated. More or less like many European cities, however, urban centers of Mughal and post-Mughal India (e.g. Delhi, Lucknow, Surat) witnessed the gradual emergence of a ‘public sphere’. Moreover, the two regions at hand possessed a substantial level of agricultural growth, living standards, transport (during the dry season) and infrastructure, military capabilities in terms of ground forces (in the case of Mysore), commercial and manufacturing capacities and social mobility of merchants (in the case of Gujarat) that – in spite of less dynamism, inventions and innovations – did not look unfavorable when compared to European core areas.
By and large, I hold that parts of late 16th to late 18th century Mughal India and its successor states were in a transitory phase. I intend to apply a non-teleological notion of transition that allows me to propose a middle ground and leave room for different possible trajectories and scenarios that could have unfolded in the absence of the British Raj. In transition periods, generally no particular mode of production is dominant, but at earlier or later stages of development, one of them might prevail. Pre-capitalist modes of production could either be preserved in spite of increasing commercial capitalist advancements and fall back to feudal or other pre-capitalist forms or capitalist potentialities could grow and lead to industrial capitalism, depending on the given socio-economic context. To this effect, 16th to 18th century India possessed both potentialities as well as obstacles for an industrial breakthrough. At the same time, as David Washbrook points out, it is far less clear why India should have failed to make use of industrial technologies once they had been invented elsewhere and become available. While India never might have become a unified nation state without British rule, the socio-economic and techno-scientific structure of South Asia’s most advanced regions were sophisticated enough to adopt foreign expertise, science and technology as the period under scrutiny has demonstrated.
In short, neither the Eurocentric emphasis on irreconcilable differences between the East and West nor the reverse-Orientalist assumptions of a preponderant congruence of the two poles or a mere Eastern pre-eminence, do justice to the complex historical trajectories of Asia and Europe.
* Kaveh Yazdani received his PhD degree in social sciences at the University of Osnabrück in 2014. He was granted the Prince Dr Sabbar Farman-Farmaian fellowship at the International Institute of Social History (IISH) in Amsterdam in 2015 and is currently a Mellon Postdoctoral Research Fellowship at the Centre for Indian Studies in Africa, University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, South Africa (

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