Nitish Kumar Is Wrong to Blame Distance From the Sea for Bihar's Poor Development

Contrary to the popular perception of contemporary Bihar as a poor state, precolonial Bihar was exceedingly rich. Its economy also benefitted from Dutch and British trading activities during the precolonial period.

On October 12, 2020, kicking off his campaign for the recently-held assembly elections, chief minister of Bihar Nitish Kumar held the geography of the state responsible for poor industrial development and dismal employment opportunities in the state. He reasoned that since ‘landlocked’ Bihar does not have the coastline, it did not attract industries during his rule.

Holding geography responsibility for the state government’s failure to attract industries is nothing but an indication of historical amnesia. This resulted in the state unemployment levels reaching an unprecedented 46.6% in April 2020.

In this article, first, I will briefly survey the precolonial economic patterns in Bihar. It shows that the crafts-based industries and agricultural commodity production employed a large segment of Bihar’s working population. Bihar’s commercial economy was intimately linked with the maritime global economy of the Indian Ocean. The Ganga River was a connecting fluvial bridge between the hinterlands of Bihar and the coasts of the Bay of Bengal.

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Second, I argue that the politicians conveniently ignore public history and heritage to be on board with the construction/contractor lobby and bureaucrats. Big-ticket construction projects, whether once much-hyped revival of Nalanda or a swanky structure for the Patna museum, hardly promise a cure for the historical amnesia.

Till recently, the state government’s push for the demolition of the Patna Collectorate building – in many ways a monument of Bihar’s vibrant commercial past and an architectural masterpiece built by the Dutch East India Company (VOC) in the 18th century – was solely aimed to lap up yet another big building project for the brand new Collectorate complex on the scenic banks of the Ganga.

The erasure of the precolonial and colonial built structures from the public sight and memory appears to be part of a devious design. In recent years, policies of postcolonial regimes increasingly mirror that of the colonial predecessors. Apathy rather than empathy defines the relationship between the ruler and the ruled. Indeed, the postcolonial regime’s interests are better served by the incremental suppression, and better by the obliteration of history and memory of its alter ego.

In March, the Central government announced a nationwide lockdown as the pandemic surged. In the following months, hundreds of thousands of Bihari migrants returned home. Dejected and exhausted, half-famished and humiliated, they were unwelcome in their home state. Much advertised double-digit growth in the past years, the carefully cultivated media image of good governance, and all hullabaloo around vikaas almost instantaneously evaporated.

The employment-sucking growth model often touted as vikaas by the politicians disillusioned the youth. Indeed, it forced politicians to make employment an important poll promise during the recently held state assembly elections. Bihar’s pre-colonial history tells us that the same geography once was the economic powerhouse of the Mughal Empire. Back then, it did provide employment to millions.

Cosmopolitan Patna

The Bihar government’s high school history books are completely silent on the cosmopolitan past of Patna after it was re-established by the Afghan ruler Sher Shah Suri in the 1540s. The Portuguese private traders were the first Europeans who sailed upstream the Ganga to reach Patna in the 16th century. In 1620, the English East India Company (EIC), following the overland routes from Agra, made an unsuccessful attempt to set up its factory (trading and warehouse facilities) in Patna. The English remarked about the well-entrenched Portuguese merchants in the city, who regularly visited from their bases at Hugli in Bengal. By the mid-17th century, both the VOC and EIC began participating in the commerce of Patna from the Bay of Bengal. Hugli was their regional headquarters.

By 1576, Mughal emperor Akbar’s army defeated the Afghans of Bihar and Bengal. However, the process of political and economic stabilisation of the eastern region stretched for several decades. The Mughal integration of the region with the rest of the empire led to economic growth and helped create the necessary market infrastructure.

Crucial in all these developments were the Jain, Marwari and Khatri merchants who had accompanied the Mughal army as suppliers and logistics providers. Soon after the conquest, these merchants settled in different areas. They provided rural credits, transacted in agricultural produce, became conduits in revenue collection and propelled the economic engines between Patna and Dhaka.

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The availability of rural credits, commercialisation of agricultural produce and increased use of money for taxation intensified the urban processes. By the early 17th century, mints were functioning in Patna, Rajmahal, and Dhaka to keep up with the liquidity supply in an expanding economy.

Dutch factory Hugli

The Dutch factory at the Hugli branch of the Ganga river by Hendrik van Schuylenburgh, c.1665. Photo: Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam.

The availability of the market infrastructure and institutions was an important requirement for the European Companies to participate in the commercial economy of Bihar and Bengal. After obtaining the necessary Mughal farman (royal order), both the VOC and EIC established their lasting commercial relations with the region. Soon they opened their trading posts in all the major urban centres along the Ganga river. Around 1640, the Dutch founded their trading post in Patna and the EIC followed.

Patna was a thriving inland riverine entrepôt city. As the overland caravan traffic from the north-western parts of India and from Delhi and Agra terminated at Patna, the city offered important transshipment facilities for onward riverine transportation of merchandise to Hugli. Patna’s cosmopolitan character resembled any of the Indian Ocean port cities that had residents speaking several tongues from many parts of the world.

Dutch complex Kashimbazar Bihar

A Dutch complex possibly at Kashimbazar or Chhapra. Painting by Hendrik van Schuylenburgh c.1665. Photo: Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam.

Bihar and the ocean

Contrary to the popular perception of contemporary Bihar as a poor state, the precolonial or Mughal subah of Bihar (merged with Bengal subah only in 1733) was exceedingly rich. Thanks to its geography, the Ganga river and its tributaries brought down fertile silt, and they facilitated irrigation and food production. The Bihari farmers reaped two to three rabi and kharif crops every year. Sugar, tobacco, oilseeds, opium comprised of rich cash crops. Dairy was another important source of income as references to the purchase of ghee frequently appear in the VOC’s records.

The economy of Bihar was intricately linked with the Indian Ocean global economy during the early modern period (c.1500–1800). Availability of the commodities such as saltpeter for making gunpowder and opium – a narcotic substance much in demand in Southeast Asia and China – pulled the European Companies deep into the hinterland from the coast. Over time the mix of commodities came to include cotton textiles, food grains, sugar, ghee, ginger, borax, among others.

Hindoo Sugar Mill

Sketch of Hindoo Sugar Mill, widely used for pressing sugarcane in India. Bihar and Bengal produced and exported significant quantities of sugar. Source: The British Library, India Office Records, Madras Public Consultations, 1794.

Export of these goods benefited the regional economy, and the productive activities employed a significant workforce. Collection, refining, packaging, and transportation of more than a hundred thousand maunds of saltpeter annually employed perhaps of thousands of nunias (a caste that derived its identity from salt-making), paikars or middlemen, and the merchant contractors with the Companies.

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Similarly, opium and sugar production employed the farmers, labourers in processing and transporting them, and of course, they offered opportunities to the credit providers, merchants and middlemen. Cotton textiles weaving sector was another huge employment generator. Women’s workforce earned a little money by producing yarns, cotton carders processed raw cotton, dying employed another set of workers, and block printers worked on the chintz with floral designs.

chintz textile

Fragment of the textile known as chintz, c.1750. Photo: Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

The Mughal government protected the customary rights of the opium growers and processors, textiles weavers and other craftsmen. Accordingly, both weavers and the opium farmers were free to sell their produce in the open market if the prices agreed upon with the advanced credit providers were lower than the prevailing market rates. They were free to settle the accounts with the credit advancing paikars by paying them the interests for the duration they utilised the money. Along with the overland caravan merchants, the companies were bringing millions of rupees in cash for their purchases in the regional markets.

Keenly aware of the importance of the continuous in-flows of cash in the booming economy, the Mughals levied a mere 2% customs duty on the bullion (bar silver and gold) imported by the Companies. Such Mughal policies ensured a steady stream of cash in the growing economy. It was only after the Battle of Plassey in 1757 that the cash flows became a trickle and eventually dried.

The political weakness of the nawabi regime of Bengal and the collaboration of the merchants, financiers and Mughal officials with the EIC eventually led to colonial domination. The Mughal era customary practice of giving freedom to producers to sell their goods in the open market was gone. During the EIC regime, peasants producing food grains and cash crops, such as opium and sugar, suffered incalculable hardships. A large majority of weavers eventually succumbed to the discriminatory pressures by the early 19th century.

Opium fleet in the Ganga River

Opium fleet in the Ganga river, downstream voyage to Calcutta, around c.1850s. Credit: The British Library.

Historical myopia

We may ask why there is a tendency among the current political elite to make colonial history invisible from the common sights of people. The new administration of an academic institution where I worked as a founding faculty in Bihar strongly advised against teaching colonial history. Obviously, such manipulation is easily done at a newly established institution funded and despotically controlled by the central government.

The insecurity of the new political elites makes them discourage the course syllabus teaching forms of discrimination, atrocities and the curbing of freedom under colonialism. Teaching ways, methods and examples of resistance would make them more insecure. Yet, the formal history teaching concerns a minuscule part of the population. The decay and destruction of the symbols of colonial rule in the market places, potentially viewed by thousands every day, yield a more desirable effect.

In the last decade, a number of heritage buildings – the Gole Market, Anjum Islamia Hall, City SP Bangalow, District and Session Judge Bungalow, Civil Surgeon Bungalow – in Patna have been destroyed. In the case of the Dutch-built Patna Collectorate, the public campaign against the Bihar government and a stay order from the Supreme Court has temporarily spared its fate.

Interestingly the stay order came on 18 September 2020 just two days after Nitish Kumar laid the foundation stone of a new collectorate complex to be built at the estimated cost of Rs. 622.22 crore. The politicians/bureaucrats and contractors’ nexus makes the state government’s historical myopia apparent. This is clear from the response they gave to the Patna High Court claiming that the collectorate building “did not have much architectural, cultural or aesthetic value”. They summarily dismissed its importance by derisively remarking that it was a mere warehouse for opium and saltpeter.

While all historical buildings and heritage sites must be protected, and the community around them should be made the stakeholders, I would like to make a case for the protection of the Dutch and the colonial built heritage sites. They help the students and the laity to acquaint themselves of the historical processes and valuable facts of Bihar’s commercial and entrepreneurial past.

Largely self-reliant for its needs, Bihar as part of the early modern global economy, exported goods in exchange for cash. The commercial activities benefited the enterprising traders, producers and labourers in Bihar. The school-going children in Bihar and people at large must not be denied these rather encouraging aspects of the state’s history. Neither they should be made oblivious to the colonial rule that entailed atrocities, discrimination, and loss of freedom.

Colonial continuity  

That the myopic vision of the policymakers, who could hardly see beyond their five-year term in the office, certainly never get to look back into the past. It is such thinking solely responsible for the continuation of the British colonial policies that sought to push peasantisation and ruralisation of eastern India’s economy in the 19th century. After 1947, the Indian state continued with the colonial policies to let Bihar remain rural and extract its mineral resources, i.e. coal and iron for the industrial growth of other parts of the country.

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There has been hardly any systematic attempt to industrialise the state and revive its Mughal era’s vibrant commercial past. The vast labour resources continue to migrate to other parts of India and to the Middle East. Once again, the legacies of the girmityas or indentured labourers of the British colonial regime seem to be perpetuating in an altered form and on a reduced geographical scale in the postcolonial state.

Through the export of goods, Bihar vigorously linked its economy with the Indian Ocean region and beyond. In turn, Bihar received millions of rupees every year that further fuelled cash crops and commodity production. The Ganga river was central to the overseas orientation of the regional economy, and it literally brought the ocean (sea) to Bihar’s doorsteps.

A famous quote by the wartime prime minister of the United Kingdom, Winston Churchill, illustrates the current state of affair: “A nation that forgets its past has no future.”

Indeed, Bihar and India deserve a future. The civil society and citizens will retort any act of obliteration and erasure of India’s history and heritage.

Murari Kumar Jha is an assistant professor, humanities and languages, at Ahmedabad University.