Periodisation of Indian History

C.N. Subramaniam


A look at any school text book of history or at the university syllabi will tell us that Indian history is divided into three phases, Ancient, Medieval and the Modern. There will indeed be some uncertainty over where the ancient period ends and the medieval begins, but the three phase periodisation is retained with a difference of a few centuries by one and all. This fits in conveniently with the three year history courses whether in high school or graduation.

This construction of the three phase history carry within them deeper social messages and biases and also have a definite influence on further historical researches. To begin with, there is an inherent assumption that there is indeed an Indian history which can be divided into so many phases. D.D. Kosambi in his critique of the Soviet Indologist D.A. Suleykin1 had this to say:

‘India is a not a mathematical point but a large country, a subcontinent with the utmost diversity of natural environment, language, historical development. Neither in the means of production not in the stages of social development was there overall homogeneity in the oldest times. Centuries must be allowed to pass before comparable stages of productive and social relationships may be established between the Indus valley, Bengal, and Malabar. Even then, important differences remain which makes periodisation for India as a whole almost impossible, except with the broadest margins.’2

As readers can sense, what begins with an unequivocal statement ends with a degree of ambiguity ‘with broadest margins’. The idea of India itself is a product of long and incomplete history of integration of local and regional societies into larger political and cultural formations. Historians like Romila Thapar have occasionally dissected this to find a group of nuclear regions separated from each other by long distances of forest and pastoral tracts.3 These nuclear regions (the Ganga Valley, Malwa, Raichur Doab, Andhra coastal plains, Saurashtra, Tamil coastal plains, Assam Valley, Orissa Plains etc) were characterised by peasant agriculture, settlement hierarchy, specialisation, a high degree of social stratification and above all state formation. Over time these nuclear regions were integrated politically and culturally. Hence despite often emerging as autonomous socio-political units, they had similar political and social structures as well as religious and cultural norms. These in turn sought to integrate the societies around them into one social unit. Often what passes for Indian history is essentially the history of these nuclear regions, especially the Ganges Valley. The intervening vast spaces were inhabited by hunter-gatherer societies, tribal societies living on a mix of hunting gathering, non-intensive cropping and animal husbandry and also tribes or bands practicing specialised crafts. The overwhelming presence of such societies had deep impact not only on spatialisation of the subcontinent but also on the course of its history even if read as the history of the nuclear regions. They simply cannot be treated as peripheral to Indian History as many historians have sought to do. Nor can they be taken as historyless people – societies without change. They too went through processes of change and transformations but so far historians have not developed methods to study them.

Regional differentiation has been noticed even in the prehistoric period in the archeological records left by the mesolithic societies.4 Regional entities and identities emerge stronger in the ‘early medieval’ period with distinct languages. These were necessarily focussed around the nuclear regions (which by now had grown in number). Though these regional societies had strong interactions with each other, they often followed distinct courses of development. Pan regional states and religio-cultural traditions imposed a degree of uniformity in both social institutions and political structures between the regions. Nevertheless beneath these uniformities the regions developed distinct social formations – with their own systems of production, labour forms, systems of subordination and control, property forms and forms of surplus appropriation and distribution. What characterised even these regional societies is the coexistence of multiple forms and relations of production and a symbiotic relation between them.5

Somewhat intriguingly the nationalist-Marxist historical tradition in India has shied away from studying this phenomenon and this task has been left to non Marxist schools. Part of the reason lies in the perception that affirmation of regional identities would lead to dissolution of the unity of the Indian ‘nation’. This itself is a product of a reading of ‘Indian’ history which sees a chronic oscillation between ‘centrifugal and centripetal forces’, between ‘strong’ centralised empires and ‘disunited and weak’ regional kingdoms. While the former is supposed to have saved the ‘country’ from ‘foreign’ invasions the latter yielded to them. Now that national unity has been achieved under the anti-imperialist nationalist movement it was not advisable to endanger it by raking up regional ghosts from the past. This fear of regional history is clearly articulated in the curriculum framework of the NCERT which states, ‘introducing…local history at the school stage has the danger of promoting parochialism and regional cultural chauvinism.’6

Thus the very idea of an Indian History seeks to project into the past a modern political construction of India and is therefore forced to give privileged treatment to the relatively short lived subcontinental empires and integrating factors like Brahmanism. After all the idea of India is due to a large measure to such imperial political formations and cultural aggrandisements. Even conceding that the nationalist project of the late 19th and 20th centuries may be a worthwhile and desirable one, it is both ahistorical and unjustifiable to ignore the spatial diversity of historical developments.7 All said and done the fact remains that people of diverse nationalities and proto nationalities and local societies came together to fight British colonialism and this led to the formation of the post independence state of India.

To project a primordial and single Indian-Hindu identity – from time immemorial is precisely the project of the Hindutva right. One Hindu identity based on the Vedic texts is seen as developing shades of diversity over time and space as people moved into different habitats in the wide divinely allocated locale stretching from the Himalayas to the seas (the Bharat Mata). Thus regional diversities are seen as aberrations or dilution of essential Indianness drawn from the Brahmanic sources. Eventually these have to be ironed out into an uniform Indianness. In their view Indianness and India assume a metaphysical identity standing above all individuals and regions and communities. This clearly contradicts the modern notion of nation with the free coming together of equal citizens to serve common goals. Rather it posits a nation standing above and before the citizens, a notion essentially drawn from tribal ideas of community minus its democratic content.

In order to foster a democratic understanding of India and Indianness it is essential break free of the notion of an Indian history and look at sub-continental diversities and give them the primacy they deserve. Understandably this is easier said than done. Even Kosambi eventually circumvented his own emphasis on regional diversity by talking of ‘vigorous and dominant modes’.

The reader 'will have to remember that no single mode prevailed uniformly over the whole country at any one time; so it is necessary to select for treatment that particular mode which, at any period, was the most vigorous, most likely to dominate production, and which inevitably spread over the greater part of the country, no matter how many of the older forms survived in outward appearance.'8 

What was necessary 50 years ago when Kosambi wrote given the state of historiography then, has remained the framework within which most historians have worked till now. Looked at from this viewpoint, obviously it would seem that caste societies, Brahmanism and imperial state formations were the most vigorous and likely to dominate the rest of the country. But that does not explain the ‘survival of the older forms’ even in ‘outward appearance’.

Today it is possible not only to start from the regions but also to go into the individual societies that went to constitute the regions themselves. It is time to stand ‘Indian History’ on its head to put the regions and localities on the top.

We need to look into the question of regions not only to examine the nature of diversities but also to explore spatialisation in the history of the subcontinent. Spatial diversities are not only a legacy of the past but created and transformed in every epoch through the interaction of diverse societies and ecological niches. Urban spaces, rural spaces, the frontier forest and pastoral spaces, spaces in which state societies and caste societies flourished and spaces where tribal and other pre-peasant societies existed, patriarchical-patrilineal spaces and matrilineal-matrilocal spaces... these endless forms of spaces constantly interacted with each other to determine the nature of each other. The more evolved and complex state societies which have left us records of history have made their own constructions and stereotypes of these diverse spaces and we should take care to see these biases when we try to seek to construct a history of spaces in the subcontinent. We will have opportunity to explore some of these problems further in the following sections.

Here one must also comment the problem posed by delimiting the area of research to what is ‘India’ today. It is well known that one cannot understand the Kushana empire or the Sultanate or the Mughals without studying central Asian histories or for that matter understanding south Indian history without an excursus into South East Asian history or the North East without going into East Asian or South East Asian histories.9 Yet they seldom form a part of the problematic of Indian university students. This once again assists the Hindutva project of seeking civilisational influences only within the geographic boundaries of the present day India.

The Threefold Division

The threefold division of Indian history into ancient, medieval and modern periods owes much to post Renaissance European self perception of its own history. The Renascent burghers were conscious of effecting a break with their own feudal past. Both the Renascent humanists and Enlightenment philosophers saw the feudal past as a period of darkness and decline of civilisation. This they contrasted with the ‘ancient’ classical Greco-Roman period which was to have registered a high watermark of civilisation. The prehistoric and pre classical period (and non classical regions) were largely ignored in this scheme. That is why even Marx while accepting the label of ‘ancient’ for the classical ages introduced the notion of ‘Asiatic’ as a preceding epoch.10 Of course Marx did not share the notion of feudalism being a regression over the ancient period as he saw a progress in the labour form from slavery to serfdom.

When the British colonial administrator-historians and Utilitarian scholars studied Indian history they consciously or unconsciously transferred the idea of tripartite division to Indian history. James Mill was probably the first to use the tripartite division to Indian history in the early 19th century.11 Instead of the Ancient, Medieval and Modern categories he used ‘Hindu, Muslim and British’ periods. Prior to Mill the Romantic minded Orientalists like William Jones and later Max Muller valorised the ‘Hindu period’ through a study of Sanskrit texts. This was debunked by the Utilitarian scholars who spent much energy in negating any civilisational contribution of a non European society. Nevertheless the idea of a highly civilised ancient India survived. These civilisational achievements were seen to be destroyed by the medieval barbarism of Muslim invaders much like the achievements of Classical Europe were ‘destroyed’ by the twin invasions of the barbarian tribes and Muslim Arabs. This was followed by the dark ages of the ‘Muslim rule’ till the English East India Co. initiated India into modernity. Thus the tripartite division when applied to India had both the original connotations of European historiography and also an added element of using religion as markers of epochs. Under this twin influence was founded the communal vision of Indian History, which postulated a positive Hindu ancient period, a negative Muslim medieval period and a modern Christian British period. Indian history could be neatly divided into three phases – the Hindu period lasting till 1190 followed by the Muslim Period with the founding of the Delhi Sultanate and ending with the Battle of Plassey (1760) which saw the beginning of British rule. The religion of the rulers was used as a marker because it was believed that Indian society especially the rural society was changeless and the only change was at the level of the rulers. (We will return to this theme of changelessness later.) There were disturbing factors like the extreme south which never saw a stable Muslim rule, Rajasthan which was ruled for long by Hindu rulers and Central and North East India which either had no rulers or did not subscribe to Islam in the so called Muslim period. Nevertheless the tripartite division was too attractive to be abandoned.

The communal historians and following them the run of the mill pulp historians who purvey standard text books on Indian history in the market have assiduously promoted the idea of civilisational collapse in the so called Muslim Period. For example, one of the indicators of civilisational levels was the ‘status of women’. It was supposed that women enjoyed a very high status in the ancient period, with little or no sati, child marriage or purdah. However with the coming in of the barbaric Muslims who habitually carried away Hindu girls, it became necessary to burn widows, marry off girls at an early age and keep them hidden away behind veils. Similarly with caste. Hindu society had to harden itself in response to the Islamic challenge and hence caste rules became rigid.12

This three phase division got entrenched in the school and university education so much so that it continues to this day. Part of the reason was that it neatly matched the three year school and undergraduate courses in history. So the threefold division was retained with a little shifting of the dates to give it a veneer of secularism. Thus instead of commencing the medieval period with the establishment of Muslim rule in 1190, the ‘cut off point’ was shifted to the death of Harsha around circa 650 CE.13 This interestingly was supposed to mark the end of large empires and the beginning of feudalism.

We will take up the question of feudalism later on and presently concern ourselves only with the threefold division. Besides nurturing popular notions of history through the teaching of history in schools and colleges it has also had implication for production of historical knowledge. It is generally presumed that one understands ancient history with the help of archeology, epigraphy and Sanskrit texts; medieval period is studied mainly with the help of Persian chronicles and documents and finally the modern period is understood by a study of English documents preserved in British and Indian archives. Thus even in the so called progressive university departments a segment called ‘early medieval history’ has been created and that has remained within the jurisdiction of the ancient history sections. This essentially covers the period prior to the establishment of the Sultanate. The ostensible reason for this is that the sources for this period continue to be in Sanskrit and epigraphs constitute the bulk of primary sources. This is of course highly questionable as we start getting large volumes of epigraphs in regional languages and literature in non Sanskrit languages including Persian and Arabic forms the bulk of our sources for this period. Using language as a demarcator tends to promote a communal divide among researchers. Despite notable exceptions the general trend has been that Hindu students take up ancient history for study and Muslim students are encouraged to take up medieval period presumably because they have easier access to Sanskrit or Persian.

As a result of such apartheid policies, methods of study have also have got compartmentalised. Thus for generations historians have failed to ask elementary questions which familiarity with different kinds of sources and sources of different periods would have necessitated. For example Medievalists have seldom looked at Navyanyaya texts which proclaim a paradigm shift in Brahmanic philosophy; nor have they asked the question as to what happened to the Brahmin land grantees who so predominate the historiography of the ‘early medieval’ period. Modern historians with the notable exception of non Indian scholars have treated the zamindars as creatures of the Permanent Settlement and have seldom raised the question as to what happened to the zamindars who were so crucial to the Mughal state system. The breaks in Indian social history are perhaps not so sharp as they would seem from such compartmentalised studies – they are more historiographical breaks than perhaps real.

Of course archeology is not even remotely considered a possible source for medieval or modern history. A major exception of course is the work on Vijayanagara which incidentally is virtually treated as a part of the Ancient period because of its Hindu ruling elite.14 In another exception Iqtidar Alam Khan has used field survey of Mughal structures to reconstruct the history of sarais and roads and bridges and also indigo technologies. However the official department of archeology has little to show for medieval archeology. In fact most departments dealing with archeology in the universities are called ‘department of ancient history and archeology’ as if archeology had relevance only to ancient history!

While it is increasingly becoming clear that such division of Indian history is impeding historical research, departments have tenaciously stuck to the older modes more out of concern for petty patronage purposes than any lofty consideration. Today more than ever it has become imperative to break the shackles the threefold division has imposed on the structure of our university departments and consequently upon historical research and the teaching of history at the popular level.

Change and Changelessness in Indian History

Periodisation is necessarily concerned with change, qualitative change. A society’s history cannot be periodised if it did not undergo qualitative changes. Thus even while it was possible to divide Indian history on the basis of dynasties that ruled, it was difficult to talk in terms of modes of production and social formations. The ambitious task Kosambi had outlined for Indian historians – to present ‘in chronological order of successive changes in the means and relations of production.’15 – still remains unfinished.

Colonial historiography and under its influence Karl Marx had maintained that Asiatic societies were relatively unchanging and the changes in political sphere were merely confined to the superstructure. ‘All the civil wars, invasions, revolutions, conquests, famines, strangely complex, rapid and destructive as the successive action in Hindustan may appear, did not go deeper than its surface’, and further, the village communities transformed ‘a self developing social state into never-changing natural destiny’.16 Marx tried to integrate this into his overall theory of social history and provide a materialist explanation for it. We can condense his argument thus: Asiatic climates required artificial irrigation on a vast scale to sustain agricultural production; this was not possible on a small scale and had to be undertaken on a large scale as public enterprise; since private enterprise could not provide conditions of production and this effectively limited the growth of private property in land and hence stratification and class formation too remained restricted; this also facilitated state control over agricultural production; the state extracted the principal portion of the surplus as land tax. While the state took care of irrigation and surplus extraction in the form of tax, the society organised itself into village communities – which controlled and operated land collectively and through the balutedar system (hereditary division of labour and combination of industry and agriculture) took care of all its craft needs. The absence of private property and stratification of the civil society meant that there would be little dynamism to propel change. All conquests and revolutions were over the surplus extracted by the state and all peasant resistance was confined to protesting against excessive taxation and were incapable of transforming the production or social relations.17 The state, though overpowering and oppressive did not intervene in the functioning of the village communities which were left relatively autonomous. This was in contrast to the post-renaissance absolutist states of Europe which constantly enlarged the scope of state activities and intervention in the affairs of the civil society. Since this social formation was the closest to tribal communal formations and still retained many forms of communal life Marx preferred to place it as one of the first forms of transition from primitive commune to class-state societies.

As anti-colonial and communist movements took shape in China and India, there was considerable debate over Marx’s positions. Much of the debate took place in the Soviet Union in the late 1920s and 1930s with some participation from communists from India and China. The debate took place as a part of the larger debate over the strategy of the Chinese revolution. The question of allying with a Chinese bourgeoisie arose only if the Chinese society was feudal; if it was seen as a country with Asiatic mode of production, then one could not posit an organically developing capitalist class. We will not digress here on this point and refer the readers to Sawer’s useful summary of the debate.18

Even though Kosambi spearheaded the movement for documenting historical change in India, a close reading of his work would indicate that he too shared the paradigm of changelessness. He had viewed the ‘traditional self sufficient village community’ with its unity of agriculture and industry as a prescription for changelessness or as he would have put it – sluggishness.19 Following Marx he was of the opinion that change and cultural progress required individuation and interaction – both of which were negated by the self-sufficient village communities.20

It may be recalled that Kosambi had criticised the dropping of the ‘Asiatic Mode of Production’ by Stalin and found the concept useful for understanding Indian history even though he saw little merit in the hydraulic state theory. He found the concept of Asiatic mode useful to explain what he considered the minimal use of force in Indian history to maintain a class order and surplus extraction.21 Indeed there is a degree of vagueness in his use of the concept as he felt that the so called Asiatic mode permeated ‘several stages’. He had also opposed the use of the stereotype primitive communism – slavery – feudalism – capitalism schema for India by the Soviet Indologist, D.A. Suleykin and S.A. Dange. He seems to have visualised the process of change in India as – tribalism – state formation in Ganges Valley – integration of the subcontinent by the empire, trade and missionary activity – transition of tribes to peasant agriculture under their impact – alienation of power and resources by the state (a process he termed as ‘feudalism from above’) – emergence of self-sufficient village communities under local lordships (which he termed ‘feudalism from below’22). The resilience of these communities to change ensured their survival to the post Independence era in which Kosambi revisited them and sought to construct their histories.23 Recently the editor of his works has pointed out that a tension existed in Kosambi’s framework between a sense of stagnation and change. ‘It may appear strange to find Kosambi here endorsing the notion of Asiatic Mode of Production, which he so vehemently opposed in the slightly later Introduction but it was Kosambi’s understanding of the power of ideology which was at the root of this contradiction, perhaps in a sense an admission of his own difficulty to achieve conceptual resolution between change and ‘negation of history’. In understanding Kosambi’s historiography one cannot gloss over this contradiction; it is this tension rather than facility of conviction that lies at the root of all radical thinking.’24 

The objective of this excursus is not to go into the evolution of Kosambi’s thinking but to illustrate the point that the issue of change in Indian history is fairly complex and simple reductionist approaches may not be of great use here.

We will illustrate this point with yet another important Marxist historian of Indian history, Irfan Habib. He has sought to present a survey of the entire pre-colonial history of India in two major papers written in 1965 and 198225 Habib believes that the principal contours of peasant production had evolved by the Gupta period - it meant a peasantry divided on caste lines and a great divide between the peasantry and the dalit agricultural labour. Subsequent technological changes did little to subvert peasant production and indeed reinforced it. This period also saw the emergence of the village community controlled by influential landholders, collectively controlling other peasants, the landless dalit labourers and village artisans and acting as an intermediary between the tax collecting state and the peasantry. This in effect lasted till the British period despite significant changes in the manner in which the state or its representatives appropriated agrarian surplus. ‘It can, therefore, hardly be disputed that the caste structure of the village and its attending elements as formed in ancient India continued to function without recognisable change till the eighteenth century. Apparently then, there were no internal processes at work to disturb the social structure of the village. But the surroundings in which the structure stood, were altered in certain respects. It is this alteration, in the nature of the ruling class and the pattern of distribution of the surplus, which, by its effects on the conditions of the life of the peasantry, provides the justification for demarcating the medieval from the ancient.’26 

We will have occasion elsewhere on to comment on Habib’s notion of peasantry. It would suffice here to note that he too essentially agrees with Kosambi that Indian society did not see any fundamental change for nearly 1500 years till the onset of colonialism and attributes this to caste based peasant production and village community.

A somewhat different viewpoint emerges from the study of B.D. Chattopadhyaya, especially his comparative study of rural settlements and societies in three regions in the early medieval period.27 The image of changeless and isolated village communities sustaining changes in the composition and modes of surplus appropriation by the rulers is brought into serious questioning. To summarise some of his findings in his own words:

rural settlements and, by implication, village communities as isolated does not... take cognizance of settlement hierarchies... Rural space did not consist of single units in a vacuum; nor did it extend to horizontal infinity. There may have been different levels at which individual units, with variations within them, could intersect. Viewing rural settlements not simply as undifferentiated landmass would lead to acknowledging the possibility of the existence of nodes even in rural space and of change.’

‘If we can leave aside such facile notions as villages in the past existing as little republics or as settlement units the state merely drew revenue from, then a major point that can be raised is: how does rural society figure in the political processes in different phases of Indian history?... The query itself implies that at different points of time in history, rural society may have undergone different experiences and that these experiences were generated by changes far wider than the attitude of a passive/active or benevolent/despotic monarch.’

‘Early medieval documents do offer alternatives to the somewhat simplistic picture of brahmana dominated rural society, at the most, of a society polarised between the local lords... and an undifferentiated mass of common residents. ...’

‘We do not consider that rural settlements in the janapada stand at a distance, as separate entities, from the state, but are integral components of the totality of the state structure. At the same time, there may be reorientations of the relationship between the different components, for example, the apex power represented by a ruling lineage and the rural settlements. Reorientation, by and large, may be viewed as a historical process, in which both the structure of the rural society at a regional and the structure of the apex undergo change, the nature of change deriving from the nature of their mutual relationship.’28 

Chattopadhyaya’s village level study points to existence of hierarchies in rural settlements and horizontal and vertical integration among them; to organic linkages between rural society and the state structure and finally to ceaseless change in the rural society with the change being induced either by the external or supralocal forces or the local forces; to rise of new social categories. This is in stark contrast with the notion of Marx cited above and shared to a large extent by successive generations of historians. The unaltering and isolated village community, the main culprit behind changelessness thus melts away, leaving the question of change looming larger than ever.

Questioning the utility of categories like Slave Society or Feudal Society derived from European history in the Indian context also needs to develop new notions and yardsticks of change. If living in Kalikatti, the village in Karnataka had changed significantly between 890 and 1250, then how do we understand and theorise about this change? Do we dismiss it as superficial or reversible or do we reopen and reexamine our conceptual tools?

The enduring presence of tribalism and the problem of periodisation

One of the first scholars to try to periodise Indian history on a materialist basis, D.A. Suleykin, grasped the centrality of transition from tribalism to class society in determining the nature of Indian history.

‘In this case a fact of cardinal importance is that in ancient India, the primitive communist system was never liquidated completely, as a result the strong survivals of this system became the main obstacle in the way of the development of a more progressive, slave owning society.

The progress of transition from classless to class society was far from being smooth and painless. No, this transition was accomplished under conditions of a long and very sharp struggle...

Inevitably the consequence of this struggle was that the survivals of the primitive communist system and communal ownership, in the long run obstructed the development of private property of the means of production...

It is quite possible that the primitive democracy did not want to give its positions and was so strong that it seemed impossible to get rid of its opposition, and therefore, it has been preserved in the village communes. There is no doubt that in the beginning the primitive democracy waged a fierce struggle for its existence ....’29

By all accounts, the single most important transformation most Indian societies seem to have undergone in pre-British times is from tribalism to peasant agriculture based states. The imprint of tribalism is everywhere, on the caste system, on the village community, on the religion, agricultural practices, and even on state institutions. Almost every single important state or kingdom seems to have emerged either directly from a tribal past or in direct collision or interaction with it. The origin myths are a testimony to this. Some states openly wore the tribal imprint on their sleeves; some camouflaged it or sought to hide it under the carpet. Even the mighty Mughal state, the most powerful and successful of imperial formations of the subcontinent, had to contend with its tribal past as enshrined in the traditions of Chengiz or Timur.30 It struggled hard to deify the emperor to overcome tribal institutions which vested power in the kin group rather than in the person of the emperor. So much so that the very term ‘Mughal’ was an anathema to the imperial Mughals as it carried connotations of a lack of high culture. The Mughals never called themselves ‘Mughal’ just as the Gond Kings of Mandla did not call themselves ‘Gond’.31 It was the common people who preserved those names for us.

The most celebrated epic of the subcontinent, the Mahabharata, preserves the searing memory of the breakdown of a kin based social order and the emergence of an impersonal state.32 The Magadhan and subsequently the Mauryan empires have been constructed by historiography as centralised bureaucratic states and we see little trace of tribalism in them. But all subsequent states betray such influences and one needs to revisit the early historic sources to understand the Mauryan state better.

The very nature of most states of the subcontinent was a direct inheritance from tribalism. The tribal custom of appropriation of surplus for common good and redistribution by the chief provided the essential basis for taxation. The state and the king justified themselves through elaborate rituals ostensibly performed for common good.

These states, unlike the classical formulation of state as an instrument of the dominant class, were themselves the ruling classes and were the principal appropriators of surplus. In other words they emerged even before class differentiation matured within the society and by siphoning off surplus prevented such classes from maturing.

The constant overbearing presence of tribalism and the movement of societies to and away from tribalism needs to be better understood and theorised. So far we have seen innumerable examples of movement from tribalism to caste based state societies. Yet we cannot rule out the possibility of the reverse process – of the transformation of caste societies into tribal societies. Historians and anthropologists have made timid suggestions in this direction. Habib has recently suggested that Afghan tribalism may be a post-Sultanate phenomenon.33 Archana Prasad has suggested that the slash and burn cultivation by Gond or Baiga tribals may be a consequence of having been edged out by Maratha and other settlers.34 Then there is also the presence of a substratum of myths of tribal dominance in even the most developed parts of the Gangetic plains, the site of the early historic transition.

Historically the two way movements of non tribal groups moving into tribal areas and subjugating or evicting the tribals as well as movement of tribals into developed state society areas are fairly well attested. Most regional kingdoms are said to have been founded by segments of main royal lineages splitting off and conquering some tribal pocket and eventually arriving at an understanding with the original inhabitants and building a state apparatus. We have equally large examples of old established state societies collapsing under pressure of invading tribals.

In other words the stresses and strains of the state societies were absorbed by the tribal societies as segments of the former fissioned out and subjugated pockets of the latter. This can be illustrated by origin myths of hundreds of ruling lineages.35 Likewise state societies could never stabilise and evolve due to the constant incursions of tribal peoples and institutions. This was one of the reasons for constructions by Indian state societies of tribals as fierce and aggressive people to be held at bay and control. Asoka the great liberal and tolerant emperor that he was goes out of his way in the 13th rock edict to warn the tribal people that ‘the emperor has power even in his remorse’. We know of the impact of great tribal movements of the post Gupta and post Harsha period ending the era of large empires with some degree of central control. Likewise we can see the end of the Cola political formation due the incursion and absorption of marginal tribals from the uplands of the Tamil country.

Such complex processes of reversion to tribalism, transition to state formation, fissioning off within state societies and incursions into tribal lands, tribal incursions into state societies, tended to arrest or subdue the organic evolution of state societies through handling their contradictions.

A question that persists is – why did tribalism survive for so long in such a large measure in the subcontinent while it was effectively liquidated in Europe even while feudalism was being established in the first millennium of the CE. There are two possible directions in which we can look for answers to this question. Firstly, a very high availability of land as compared to sparse population, a scenario which finally ended in the late 19th or early 20th century. Secondly, some unidentified weakness of agrarian technology which gave an edge to tribal ways of life mixing shifting agriculture, hunting, pastoralism and gathering and also trading in precious forest produce.36 We need to study the evolution of tribalism and its adaptation to such a mix in livelihood. This is an area where further research would be well rewarded.

Periodisation becomes problematic if we are to recognise that the transition from tribe to class state was never completed and there was a constant oscillation between the two throughout history.


The question of the periodisation of Indian History is not merely of academic importance, but has had great importance for the construction of the identities of peoples in our times. As such it has deep political import.

By talking of a history of India, and ignoring the process by which subcontinental identities were formed and the modern Indian state was constituted we fall into the trap of RSS-BJP’s primordial Indian-Hindu nationalism. This also goes a long way to legitimise the oppression of nationalities striving for autonomy and independence within the Indian federation. Any people’s history of South Asia should not only seek to reconstruct the process of creation of modern identities but also dwell upon the vast regional and local diversities and trajectories of development.

The threefold division of Indian history into ‘ancient, medieval and modern’ has little analytical value and instead carries a baggage of meanings which glorify the ancient at the cost of the medieval and the modern. This once again reinforces stereotypes that the RSS-BJP are trying to promote. It is also detrimental to purposes of research which it pushes into watertight compartments, each with its own distinct tools of analysis and preferred source materials. If this framework survives despite its glaring problems even in the ‘progressive’ history departments it is due to the need to sustain patronage powers and networks assiduously cultivated in the 70s and 80s.

Studies undertaken within a Marxist framework have time and again concluded that the social formation in India remained relatively changeless and stable during the first and the second millennia of the common era till colonialism broke this system. While the magisterial authority of such studies cannot be questioned easily, it only means that we need to develop new perceptions and yardsticks to understand change, which was taking place ceaselessly nevertheless. This would require us to examine newer sources and local histories and also refine the notion of modes of production and change itself.

We also need to develop methods to understand the processes that governed the evolution of tribalism and tribal institutions and their interaction with state societies.

End Notes:

1 D.A. Suleykin, Basic Questions of the Periodisation of Ancient Indian History, Calcutta, 1954. Originally published in Russian from Moscow/Leningrad in 1949.

2 D.D. Kosambi, ‘On a Marxist Approach to Indian Chronology’ in Combined Methods in Indology and Other Writings (Ed. B. Chattopadhyaya), New Delhi 2002, pp. 49-50 (originally published in 1951).

3 Romila Thapar, ‘Towards the Definition of an Empire: The Mauryan State’ in Romila Thapar, Cultural Pasts, New Delhi 2000, pp. 462-488 (originally published in 1987).

4 B. Subbarao, The Personality of India, Baroda, 1958. For a more recent review of the matter, see Bridget and Raymond Allchin, The Rise of Civilization in India and Pakistan, New Delhi 1983 and later editions. Especially, their last chapter entitled ‘subcontinental unity and regional diversity’.

5 For a non-Marxist work on the subject see, Harald Tambs-Lyche, Power, Profit and Poetry. Traditional Society in Kathiawar, Western India, New Delhi, 1997

6 Guidelines and Syllabi for Upper Primary Stage, p. 59, New Delhi 1986.

7 A significant exception to this mainstream history writing is Irfan Habib’s three volumes of ‘People’s History of India’. These as yet cover only the prehistoric period and we need to see how he and his colleagues treat the later periods. Irfan Habib, People’s History of India (three volumes) New Delhi, 2001, 2002 & 2003. For a degree of sensitivity to regional diversity also see Romila Thapar, Early India, New Delhi 2002. At the school level the class 6 text book for history prepared by Delhi SCERT may be seen as a step in this direction. Incidentally for the first time these text books dispense with the boundaries of the present day India in maps illustrating premodern history, which had been made mandatory by the Survey of India.

8 D.D. Kosambi, An Introduction to the Study of Indian History, Bombay 1975, p. 14.

9 For a fruitful study of transmontane and transoceanic interactions see, Irfan Habib’s People’s History cited above.

10 ‘In broad outline, the Asiatic, ancient, feudal and modern bourgeois modes of production may be designated as epochs marking progress in the economic development of society.’ Karl Marx, A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, Moscow, 1970, p. 21. Engels built the basis of the concept of primitive communism as preceding the ancient formations in his Origin of Family, Private Property and the State (Moscow, 1950). The use of the term primitive communism however came with Stalin’s Dialectical and Historical Materialism. See History of the CPSU (B) Short Course Moscow, 1951, pp. 194-5. Stalin effectively replaced the notion of the Asiatic mode with primitive communism.

11 James Mill, The History of British India, New York, 1968.

12 For example V.D. Mahajan, History of India.

13 This date for the end of the ancient period is used normally in the NCERT history school text books.

14 John M. Fritz, George Michell and D.V. Devraj, Vijayanagara Research Project monographs (5 vols on various themes), New Delhi various dates around 1995.

15 D.D. Kosambi, The Culture and Civilisation of Ancient India in Historical Outline, New Delhi 1981, p. 10.

16 Karl Marx, Surveys from Exile (Ed. D Fernbach), Penguin 1973, p. 302, 306. Contrary to popular belief, Marx himself never used the term ‘Asiatic Mode of Production’ and preferred to call it Oriental social system or social order.

17 For a detailed discussion on the matter see Marian Sawer, Marxism and the Question of the Asiatic Mode of Production, The Hague, 1977, pp. 40-70. Sawer somewhat underplays the importance of hereditary combination of agriculture and industry in the village community in Marx’s scheme. See also E.J. Hobsbawm’s introduction to Marx, Pre-Capitalist Economic Formations, London, 1964, p. 33.

18 Sawer, op. cit. p. 80-103.

19 D.D. Kosambi, The Culture and Civilisation of Ancient India in Historical Outline, London, 1970, p. 20.

Of course he was careful to qualify the notion of self sufficiency to include some minimal purchase of salt and metal from outside.

20 Ibid. p. 175.

21 See Kosambi, Combined Methods in Indology and Other Essays, New Delhi 2002, pp. 58-9. Paper originally published in 1954.

22 For a somewhat sterile debate on applicability of the concept of feudalism to India see, T.J. Byres and Harbans Mukhia, Feudalism and Non-European Societies, London 1985.

23 ‘Differences between villages were eroded by a static mode of production, so that a village founded in AD 1500 looked about the same after a century or two as one first settled over a thousand years earlier.’ Kosambi, An Introduction, p. 259.

24 B.D. Chattopadhyaya, introduction to D.D. Kosambi, Combined Methods, p. xxviii-xxix.

25 Irfan Habib, ‘Social Distribution of Landed Property in Pre-British India: A Historical Survey’, (1965) and ‘The Peasant In Indian History’ (1982) both reprinted in Irfan Habib, Essays in Indian History, Towards a Marxist Perception, New Delhi 1997.

26 Ibid. p. 144.

27 Brajadulal Chattopadhyaya, Aspects of Rural Settlements and Rural Society in Early Medieval India, Calcutta, 1990.

28 Ibid. pp. 125-130.

29 D.A. Suleykin, op. cit. pp. 8-9.

30 Cf. ‘the tribal character of Mongol polity did not permit the rise of an absolutism comparable to Turkish monarchy.’ Iqtidar Alam Khan, The Political Biography of a Mughal Noble, New Delhi 1973, pp. x-xi.

31 Harbans Mukhia, The Mughals of India, 2004, p. 3.

32 Cf. ‘The intrinsic sorrow of the battle of Kurukshetra is not merely at the death of kinsmen but also at the dying of a society, a style, a political form.’ Romila Thapar, From Lineage to State, New Delhi, 1984, pp. 140-1.

33 Irfan Habib, ‘The Evolution of the Afghan Tribal System’, Indian History Congress, 2001.

34 Archana Prasad, ‘Reinterpreting tribal livelihood systems: Underdevelopment and the local political economy in central India 1800-1940’ in B.B. Chaudhuri and Arun Bandopadhyay (Ed.), Tribes, Forest and Social Formation in Indian History, New Delhi, 2004.

35 See B.D. Chattopadhyaya, The Making of Early Medieval India, New Delhi 1994; Rima Hooja, ‘Contacts, Conflicts and Coexistence: Bhils and Non Bhils in Southeastern Rajasthan’ in Bridget Allchin (Ed.), Living Traditions: Studies in the Ethnoarcheology of South Asia, New Delhi 1995, pp. 131-33; Surajit Sinha, ‘State formation and Rajput Myth in Tribal Central India’ (1962), reprinted in H. Kulke (Ed), The State in India, 1000-1700, Oxford 1997, pp. 304-342; Surajit Sinha (Ed.), Tribal Polities and State Systems in Pre-Colonial Eastern and North Eastern India, CSSS, Calcutta, 1987; K. Suresh Singh, ‘A Study in State Formation among tribal communities’, in R.S. Sharma (Ed.), Indian Society: Historical Probings In Memory of D.D. Kosambi, PPH, New Delhi, 1974, pp. 317-336.

36 Kosambi repeatedly pointed out the paradox of the spread of agriculture reducing commodity production and trade. He was of the opinion that forest dwellers engaged in commodity exchange with traders from the settled regions.

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