Review: The Concise Oxford History of Indian Business by Dwijendra Tripathi and Jyoti Jumani


The Concise Oxford History of Indian Business

The Concise Oxford History of Indian Business



THE CONCISE OXFORD HISTORY OF INDIAN BUSINESS: Dwijendra Tripathi, Jyoti Jumani; Oxford University Press, YMCA Library Building, Jai Singh Road, New Delhi-110001. Rs. 275.


Rajiv Gandhi: I don’t know history, I make history!

Jagmohan: But those who don’t know history, makes a bad one!![i]

If one has to sum up in a single line as to what this book aims at, then that one line will be, “ it gives you sense of history of Indian business”. Unfortunately the typical Indian manager, trained in science, engineering or commerce, has never been introduced to the value of history as a doorway to the present. Most of the people fail to appreciate the fact that character of business as we see today, has been shaped by its past history

This present work further answers relevant questions like, what are the roots of modern business practices in India, What forces shaped the way Indian Business looks today.

This book tells the story of evolution of Indian Business from merchants to service providers. Focusing on the principal actors whose exploits made the transition possible.

The author, Dwijendra Tripathi, has been a pioneer in the study of business history in India, he teaches a full time course on the subject at Indian Institute of Management Ahmedabad.

The book has been divided in 15 chapters and focus is on the modern period or that phase of Indian history which witnessed the shaping of the features and characteristics that distinguish Indian business today-during which period the country made the transition to an industrial economy.

The story begins at the turn of eighteenth century when Mughal Empire under Emperor Aurangzeb encompassed practically the whole of Indian sub-continent. Indian society was primarily agrarian with a very small manufacturing sector confined largely to textile and handicrafts; even then it was counted as one of the most industrialized countries of Asia at its time. Despite relatively high political stability, infrastructure for transaction of goods and scattered nature of market impeded growth of business operation both in terms of volume as well as innovation. Absence of one unified currency created another hurdle to the business of that time. Some notable mentions of that period will be, Seth Hira Nand Sahu, the founder of house of Jagat Seth, Abdul Ghafur of Surat, reputed to be owner of more than twenty sailing ships and with a trade volume equal to that of British East India company, Prominent Jewelers of Ahmedabad like Zaveris who also carried Banking business, occasionally obliging the English East India Company with loans.  

There was well developed credit institution, Hundi System, used to remit money across lands.

English East India Company was not the only foreign player in India those days, others like French, Dutch and Portuguese were also quite active under charter from their respective governments. Some old players like Arab and Egyptian merchants were also active around Calicut region. This was the backdrop with which book begin to chart a journey of next 300 years of Indian Business, 1700 AD was indeed close to golden period for Indian business which was not second to anyone in the world.

With death of Aurangzeb in the year 1707, Mughal Empire started declining with weak rulers unable to effectively control in wake of rising Marattha power and gave way to small regional centers of power. Mughal period saw a strong treasury and revenue department which made Empire less dependent on Business class, but emergence of small regional powers changed this relationship for ever, these small states were dependent on big merchants for loans. Prominent states like Sikh in north, Nawabs iof Bengal and Awadh in East, Nizam in South resorted to a system wherein rights of land revenue collection were given to merchants so as to raise finances. A parallel can be drawn with present day relationship between political class and industrialist class, political parties are dependent on big corporate class for election funding, and one can expect this to be give and take relationship!

Most interesting aspect of that era was short-sightedness of native Merchants and Bankers; they became party to efforts of European powers to take political power in their hands, resulting in end of influence of these native merchants and Bankers. This phenomenon could be seen in all parts of country, Baroda and Ahmedabad saw Merchant bankers rejoicing British annexation of that part of country following the rout in the last and decisive Anglo-Maratha war. The Surat merchants followed same and aligned openly with British and resulted in emergence of Company as real power in 1759. Role of Jagat Seth, Khoja Wajid and Amirchand is well known in the Battle of Plassey in 1757. The victory of Plassey brought enormous power and prestige to the English Company and marker the beginning of a process that culminated in the British conquest of almost the entire subcontinent in next 60 years. Interesting phenomenon which followed next was control of Hundi network to transmit funds from Calcutta region to Bombay by British.

Several Bankers such as Manohardas Dwarkadas and Travadi Arjunji Nathji of Surat and Mannu Lal and Beni Prasad of Benares, financed the British military operations against the Indian rulers. Within a space of less than thirty years after the emergence of British supremacy, all these prominent merchant bankers were routed from the business scene with likes of Jagat Seth reduced to penury.

Emergence of the English East India Company as an unrivalled political force in subcontinent coincided with Industrial Revolution in England. Steam Engine developed by James Watt in 1765 was beginning of a new change, followed by important inventions such as Richard Arkwright’s spinning frame(1769), James Hargreave’s spinning jenny(1770) and Edmund Cartwright’s power loom(1783). A new Factory system of large scale machine production changed the mainly agrarian Britain into an industrialized country and British hegemony in India provided an easy market for the products of the burgeoning British Factory system.

By the mid of 18th century, India saw emergence of Agency Houses, through which number of British subjects emerged as new free Merchants engaging in private trade with India. With abolition of monopoly of  East India company in year 1813, agency houses and private merchants rose to the position of supremacy in the commercial sphere.

Book further traces history of emergence of Dwarkanath Tagore and beginning of yet new era for Indian business. Next few decades saw new business leaders like Jamstji Jejeebhoy emerging, roots of Tatas of future. This transition phase saw emergence of modern industry with ventures into textiles by Indians.

By the beginning of 20th century Indian business class started to assert a confident identity with diversified ventures into chemicals, steel and textiles. There were many new powerful families which emerged, some survived such as that of Tatas, while many could not stand the test of time and were forgotten.

Book gives entirely different perspective to way most of us have seen history of making of nation as we know today, book supports arguments with facts and figures and it sees everything in most objective manner without flowing in emotions of lofty nationalism blaming everything on colonial rule alone, it praises when it was worth it such as emergence of unified currency and evolution from trade to industry under the British rule, book does  not hide the shortcoming of the natives and the colonial power.  Narrative is continuous with every chapter falling in line with next one. Book helps one dispel many myths about early days of Indian Independence with Nehru at the helm, government intervention in commercial activities can be better appreciated as a base is created by the previous chapters. One gets to learn how the best of the intentions of Nehruvian period were betrayed with ascendancy of Indira Gandhi’s infamous License Raj period and how some industrialists made profits with careful manipulation of political levers. From relatively low period of commercial life in India, book further takes reader to globalized era of 1990’s when India started aggressive liberalization, but by this time, reader starts to ponder on the strikingly similarity between gone era of early 18th century and present era, and one cannot escape from wondering if we will be more careful this time in giving way to our sovereignty for short term commercial gains! Even though possibility of getting colonized may be far fetched but still emergence of neo-colonism in the garb of globalization is something which poses its own share of challenges for Indian government. Still book ends with a healthy and confident picture of Indian business with strong emerging economy and players such as Reliance, Tatas, Infosys, Wipro, Biocon, Pharma companies and so on.  Book amazes with its comprehensive and rewarding analysis of business history of India and it fills a glaring vacuum in the existing literature on Indian Business.

This fascinating and well researched book will appeal to anyone interested in the story of Indian Business from CEOs to scholars, professionals and students.

[i] My frozen Turbulence in Kashmir by Jagmohan

2 Responses to “Review: The Concise Oxford History of Indian Business by Dwijendra Tripathi and Jyoti Jumani”
  1. blessjess says:

    well…after reading this I felt that perhaps history of business would interest me more than the dynamics of contemporary business which does seem complex. Actually looking at certain things from a historical perspective considering the social, economic political and other facets aids in better understanding, coz if we know abt the origin and development of a particular thing, over the years, we certainly are in a better position comprehend what we have at present and can also predict the trends in future.

    Seems to be an interesting book from a domain I have not yet dared to venture into…and has been reviewed well.

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  1. […] is a good detailed review of the book here as well. It sums up whatever there is in the book. It saves a lot of my effort. Hence the title of the post […]

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