Hindu Mercantile collusion or survivorship bias ?

In recent years many professionals have turned to writing on topics related to Hinduism and Indian history. It is a welcome trend for many good reasons. Not all of these people might be historians by education but they are still very impressive.

Saswati Sarkar and others have recently published a very thorough series on “Indic Mercantile Collaboration with Abrahamic Invaders”. The series has evoked mixed response from people across the political spectrum. Here however I am making a humble effort to point out a fundamental flaw in the research and its conclusions.

Historians have no clue about survivorship bias, so they mistake visible properties for properties. – Nissim Nicholas Taleb

Taleb’s observation applies perfectly to Saswati’s research.  Despite all the efforts authors have put in; they ignore survivorship bias and incorrectly blame “mercantile class” for their perceived sin of colluding with invaders. 

Understanding Survivorship Bias

“A lot of people die of cancer these days. During our time hardly anyone died of cancer. This is because of this pollution, GMOs and other human interference in forces of nature.” says an old man.

While his observation might be correct he is completely wrong about the causes. The real reason why so many people die of cancer these days is because a lot of other diseases have been eliminated and hence all those people who did not die of TB, Leprosy, Asthma etc. now have to die of some robust disease that has survived human innovation.  What the old man has missed is the fact that Cancer has survived whereas as other diseases have not. Humans are indeed living longer and in a better world than before.

War, colonialism, oppression all involve wealth. Wealth is created through trade. People who engage in trade are merchants. Together they are called the mercantile class. No war or colony is possible without significant involvement of mercantile class. Many times this war machine or colony needs so much wealth that no one can be a merchant without having some stake in the war or a colony.

Now imagine a patriotic merchant who decides he will not-cooperate with Islamic invaders or British colonial masters. Such merchant will get out of business sooner or later and someone who is more opportunistic will rise up the ladder quickly becoming the “mercantile class”. This is a “heads I win, tails you lose” situation where an outsider will always think that mercantile class is so shameless to have conspired along with foreign invaders.

During the Islamic or British rule some % of these communities must have used their traditional expertise in trade to help these foreign rulers and benefit from it and as they profited they “became” the mercantile class. It is also perfectly possible that many merchants might have stuck to their principles and might have lost their wealth and hence they stopped being “mercantile class”.

Blaming mercantile class here is a mistake because you are falling for the survivorship bias.

What was the ideal scenario authors where hoping for and how plausible was it ?

A good way to analyse this situation is by trying to understand the “alternative scenario”. What if the mercantile class as the authors think of them were actually very homogenous and had acted to despise the foreign rulers. What could have happened in such a case?

Clearly the opportunities for trading would have got lapped up by some other community. What if all those communities were also equally homogenous and collectively had refused to trade with foreign rulers ? In that case however the foreign rulers would have got frustrated. They would have then resorted to rampage or simply left the colony.

But you need to understand what you are really asking here. You are asking all people be unselfish and make exact same choice even though there might massive windfall profits to be made by making a selfish choice. Nowhere in history such a thing has happened. All people making same choice despite opposite incentives is always a human fantasy. Communism too is based on on similar fantasy and hence typically fails.

Imagine that community X had refused to work with Islamic and British rulers. Wouldn’t it mean that this community over time would become poor and poorer? So when in 2017 someone like Saswati writes about Indian history would she note that community X refused to collude with the foreign rulers ?  Of course not, because the community X would not be remembered as mercantile class anymore.

Mistaking individuals for a group

Another classic mistake that authors make is to attribute actions of few people to the entire group.

Let me give a completely different example. Almost all the major brands in Piano industry are German. American brands like Steinway and Schnabel, Wurlitzer organ etc. are German. Germans dominated Piano making in Tsarist Russia, England, France, Australia and elsewhere.

If I have to use Saswati’s logic I will have to conclude that German piano makers immigrated at a higher rate. But that is not true. Culturally German society had better know how of piano making. Many Germans immigrated with with them that know-how too reached elsewhere. There were Germans who took up baking, farming or brewing but given the competitive advantage Germans had in Piano making they might have succeeded better than their competition in that field.

Here is another example picked from Thomas Sowell’s essay.

Just as cultural leadership in a particular field is not permanent for nations or civilizations, neither is it permanent for given racial, ethnic, or religious groups.  By the time the Jews were expelled from Spain in 1492, Europe had overtaken the Islamic world in medical science, so that Jewish physicians who sought refuge in the Ottoman Empire found themselves in great demand in that Moslem country.  By the early sixteenth century, the sultan of the Ottoman Empire had on his palace medical staff 42 Jewish physicians and 21 Moslem physicians.  With the passage of time, however, the source of the Jews’ advantage– their knowledge of Western medicine– eroded as successive generations of Ottoman Jews lost contact with the West and its further progress.  Christian minorities within the Ottoman Empire began to replace the Jews, not only in medicine but also in international trade and even in the theater, once dominated by Jews.  The difference was that these Christian minorities– notably Greeks and Armenians– maintained their ties in Christian Europe and often sent their sons there to be educated.  It was not race or ethnicity as such that was crucial but maintaining contacts with the ongoing progress of Western civilization.  By contrast, the Ottoman Jews became a declining people in a declining empire.  Many, if not most, were Sephardic Jews from Spain– once the elite of world Jewry.  But by the time the state of Israel was formed in the twentieth century, those Sephardic Jews who had settled for centuries in the Islamic world now lagged painfully behind the Ashkenazic Jews of the Western world– notably in income and education.  To get some idea what a historic reversal that has been in the relative positions of Sephardic Jews and Ashkenazic Jews, one need only note that Sephardic Jews in colonial America sometimes disinherited their children for marrying Ashkenazic Jews.

Now one might conclude from this example that Jewish Doctors loved to collude with Ottoman Empire or later the same person might conclude that Christian Doctors had a thing for Ottoman empire. It is however not a correct observation. It is survivorship bias. Ottoman empire needed Doctors. Whoever was in a better position to be Doctor hence benefited from Ottoman empire. Portraying doctors of either religions as the bad guy here is a folly. 


The conclusion of Saswati et al’s research is actually the best part of that article. The authors correctly state that individual choices could be very different from the stereotype applied to the group. Authors cite several examples from Aurobindo Ghose to Sita Ram Goel and how these people totally betrayed what one would have guess their future to be based on the families they were born into.

Despite their genuine efforts authors were blinded by survivorship bias and ended up portraying some communities as villains for making the wrong choice.

In my opinion a more suitable conclusion would be the failure of Indic political order to see trade as an integral part of political planning and creating sufficient incentives for the merchants to succeed while being opposed to Abrahamic invaders.

I am not familiar with the history but in modern times when parties like BJP are paralysed on issues like RTE, temple control or mindlessly promoting things like price control or swadeshi they are essentially creating incentives for Indic classes to move away from Hindu roots. It is something that has got manifested in the recent Lingayat movement to break free from Hinduism. It would be stupid to blame Lingayats here, the blame lies on the political class that has created those incentives for them.

It would be great to see why the merchants who betted on foreign invaders might have succeeded at  higher rate and why Indian kings failed to see this and put any counter measures.

P.S. While this article might seem critical for the authors I would like to mention that I have a lot of respect for them and the work they have been doing for last few years. They indeed have brought original ideas on the table and have never shied away from putting lot of efforts to make their case. Though in this particular case I think they were wrong.

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