By Anjum Altaf
Being a Tribute to Dr. G.M. Mehkri
The 2006 Sachar Committee report on the status of the Muslim community in India found that Muslims were amongst the poorest of the poor in the country.
How do we square that with the fact that up until 1857 Muslims had ruled parts of India for over 800 years? I mention this fact because, in the minds of some people, Muslims had expropriated all the wealth of India during this period and oppressed all the non-Muslims.
India has been independent for a little more than 60 years, so this transformation from being the owners of the land to being the poorest of the poor could not conceivably have occurred during this short period.
So, did the decline of the Muslims occur during the less than hundred years of British rule between 1857 and 1947? If so, how?
I don’t know. I am writing this post partly to find out and partly to discharge a long-owed debt to Dr. G.M. Mehkri, a remarkable man in my opinion, who I met just once in the mid-1980s and have never forgotten because he had a very unique perspective on this issue.
Dr. Mehkri had a hypothesis that intrigued me. I don’t really know if it would survive a rigorous test but that seems beside the point. What fascinated me was the audacity and innovativeness of his thinking and his ability to communicate the excitement of such thinking to a younger generation. He was the kind of teacher one would have loved to have as a thesis advisor.
Here is the gist of his hypothesis as best as I remember after all these years:
Islam was born as a religion of the desert where land was of little value. The principal forms of property in the early years of Islam were animals (camels, horses, sheep) that are reproducible assets.
When a man died, his property was divided according to the Islamic law of inheritance to all his heirs in certain proportions. With reproducible assets, even if an heir inherited a pair of sheep, he/she could build up a stock again with a reasonable amount of diligence and common sense.
You should already be getting the drift of the story.
When Muslims came to India, they applied the same law of inheritance in a country where the principal form of property was land, which is a non-reproducible asset. You divide up land amongst the heirs and pretty soon (say over two or three generations) the size of a holding becomes uneconomic to farm. The owners have no option but to sell the land and join the category of the landless.
Dr. Mehkri had some extensions to this story:
First, the Hindu inheritance law and joint family institution were adapted to land being the principal form of property. This must have had many other implications but one that was relevant was that the process of inter-generational dilution of property was not the same. In general, Muslims whose land holdings became too small to farm did not sell out to other Muslims but to non-Muslims.
Second, that there were three Muslim trading communities (Bohris, Khojas and Memons, if I remember right) who converted to Islam from Hinduism but retained their old institution of joint property holding. These were the only three communities that remained prosperous amongst the Muslims.
Once again, I don’t know if these hypotheses would be sustained by detailed research but at the level of theory they do highlight the fact that the laws of inheritance have a great bearing on economic outcomes over generations. And this relationship has attracted very little attention.
There are a number of fascinating extensions that came to mind as I pursued the line of thought opened up by Dr. Mehkri. I will write about them in a later post.
To conclude this tribute, I want to return to the reason I raised the possibility that the British period might have a bearing on the phenomenon of Muslim impoverishment. Under the Mughals, all land was the property of the emperor and was subject to tax-farming under the mansabdari system. I doubt that the mansabdars cared whether those from whom they extracted taxes were fellow-religionists or not, just as modern factory owners don’t discriminate amongst their employees on the basis of shared identities. That should take care of the speculation that ordinary Muslims had benefited inordinately from Muslim rule in India.
But more importantly, if there were no ownership of land Dr. Mehkri’s theory would not have applied during that period. It was only under the British that the Permanent Settlements were introduced (beginning with Bengal in 1793) and private ownership of land became a reality with the mansabdars being transformed into lawful owners of their domains. Only after this change could the process of dilution of land holdings of this Mughal elite could have started.
This hypothesis is extended to include the implications of primogeniture in More on the Law of Inheritance.
I wonder if someone would be able to obtain a copy of Dr. Mehkri’s dissertation and delve into this topic in more depth. The details are as follows: Mehkri, G.M. The Social background of Hindu-Muslim relationship, Ph.D. Thesis, University of Bombay. Bombay: Bombay University, 1947, English. National Social Science Documentation Centre (NASSDOC), 35 Feroz Shah Road, New Delhi: 110001, India.
June 2011 Update: The NASSDOC copy is missing. A copy of the thesis has been located in the archives of the Bombay University library. I have not had access to it yet.