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Varna and Jati aka ‘Caste’ System Was Hugely Damaging to Indians: 10

November 30, 2018 4 comments

In the previous post of this series, I mentioned that Indian kingdoms had no problem repelling and defeating foreign invaders upto the beginning of the 12th century AD. Yet somehow, in the absence of any technological or tactical breakthroughs on the other side, their record of success against foreign invaders becomes really bad between 1192 AD (defeat of Prithviraj) and around 1650 AD (dawn of Maratha empire under Shivaji). And then the (initially) materially poor and numerically far smaller armies of that emergent power somehow end up systematically destroying most Muslim Kingdoms in India and prevailed in a two decade long war against the much larger and prosperous Mughal empire to become the predominant power in India.

Have you ever wondered why the Maratha Empire succeed in doing what had eluded other groups and aggregations of people in India for almost half a millennium? For starters, it helped that they had an extremely competent and visionary founder in Shivaji. But it was his successors (and those who believed in the cause) who kept fighting and winning till they reached their goal. After reaching that point, the empire slowly came apart due to infighting and other bullshit- but they did achieve the initial goal of permanently erasing almost every single Muslim kingdom in India. So we come back to the question as to why they almost completely succeeded where many had failed before. What made their efforts different from others who had tried before.

To understand what I going to talk about later, let me introduce you to a seemingly unrelated historical fact. Ever wondered why a region so divided and engaged in almost constant low-level warfare such as the Italian peninsula between 1494-1559 was never successfully occupied by the much larger and prosperous Ottoman Empire- even when the later was at its height of power in the early 16th century? Also, why was the Ottoman Empire never able to effect worthwhile levels of religious conversions in most of its erstwhile European territory with the exception of tiny pockets such as present-day Albania and Kosovo. Why was its grasp on the Balkans always so tenuous and why did it choose to govern indirectly in most of those places?

What makes this inability of the Ottoman Empire to successfully invade and occupy Italy even more peculiar is that, as early as the 1480s, north-western boundaries of the Ottoman Empire were less than 200 km from Venice. And yet, for a number of reasons, they only got a bit closer to that city over two hundred years- after which the Ottoman Empire slowly shrank and went into decline. Why was such a rich, dynamic and populous Empire (at least between late 1400 and mid-1600s) unable to occupy a region full of small-ish kingdoms and duchies who were in almost constant conflict with each other? Why was no kingdom on the Italian peninsula unwilling to cooperate with an external invader from the east in order to prevail against its rivals?

Some of you might be aware that the extreme eagerness of Indian kings (and most Indians) to cooperate with foreign aggressors to screw over local competitors was one of the major reason behind why it was so easy for the later to succeed in spite of having far smaller armies. And let us be clear about something, this also occurred on the Italian peninsula- but with one major difference. See.. during that period, various small Italian kingdoms and city states did sometimes seek assistance from the French, Spanish and Hapsburg kingdoms to prevail over their rivals. But they never seriously considered doing so from the Ottoman Empire, even though many Italian kingdoms had pretty good trade relations with it. But why not?

It comes down to religion, specifically how monotheistic religions work. Though France, Spain and the Hapsburgs were frenemies to Italian kingdoms, they were (religiously and culturally) on the same side. The Ottoman Empire, though more religiously tolerant than contemporary Christian kingdoms, was fundamentally a Muslim Empire. It also helped that the Italian kingdoms were aware that other European kingdoms were not capable of occupying and ruling Italy indefinitely. Furthermore, there was a massive social stigma and fear of popular revolt if they were seen to be collaborating with Ottomans. In contrast to that, the lack of a real monotheist religion in India as well as massive internal social divisions caused by the ‘jati’ system made it trivial for Indian traitors to collaborate with any foreign invader. And there was no shortage of them in India.

Moreover, any serious attempt by Ottomans to invade Italian peninsula would have resulted in many disparate kingdoms within Italy and western Europe joining up to fight them. And then there was the effect of the ‘jati’ system on social cohesion within military ranks. In previous posts, I have mentioned how the ‘jati’ system resulted in Indian armies being deeply fragmented and non-cohesive. The various Italian kingdoms and other European powers of that era did not suffer from this handicap, because in spite of class divisions, they were all on the ‘same’ side. Furthermore, they had no issues with developing and fielding newer weaponry as well as adapting their strategy in response to their adversaries.

It is already close to 900 words, so I will wrap up this post now. In the next part of this series, I will explain why the Maratha and Sikh Empires were finally able to erase almost every single Muslim-ruled kingdom In India. You will also see why they, and not some other groups, achieved that objective. Hint: it has far more to do with the social organization of both communities rather than martial valor. And yes.. both communities had far fewer internal divisions due to the ‘jati’ system than other contemporary groups around them.

What do you think? Comments?