The individual who has been called a munshi need not be upset because it is indeed an honorific
furor over someone calling another a munshi has been ubiquitous on social media. Munshi was taken as a slur. The electronic media made a mountain out of the molehill, implying that the word munshi had negative connotations.
Somebody with a semblance of insight in the region’s history would see the irony. Sadly, the ignorance in Pakistan has assumed dangerous proportions. The fact is that munshi was once an honorific title and people proudly used it as a prefix. To gain clarity, we have to delve into history with the help of Christopher Bayly, Muzaffar Alam and Sanjay Subrahmanyam.
The difficult transition between the information and knowledge regimes of the pre-colonial and colonial political systems of South Asia was largely, though not exclusively, mediated by scribes, writers, statesmen and accountants possessing a grasp of the chief language of power in that time, namely Persian. More than any vernacular language, it was in Persian that the officials of the British East India Company conducted its early business, administration and diplomacy in the years around the seizure of the revenues of Bengal in the mid-Eighteenth Century.
The real interlocutor for the company official, thus, was the munsh who was not only a mediator and spokesman (wak l) but also the key personage who could both read and draft materials in Persian and who had a grasp over the realities of politics that men like Warren Hastings, Antoine Polier, and Claude Martin found altogether indispensable. The writer and clerical establishment approximated to an Indo-Muslim bureaucracy that was acquiring some of the attributes of a middle class.
The word Munshi was originally used for a contractor, writer or secretary and later in the Mughal Empire and India for native language teachers, teachers of various subjects, especially administrative principles, religious texts, science and philosophy. Munshis were also secretaries and translators employed by the Europeans.
This expression was generally employed as a respected title for persons who achieved mastery over languages. It eventually became a surname to the people whose ancestors had received this title. Some of them had also served as ministers and administrators for various royals and were regarded as nobility. It had widely been used as an honorific title for an educated man.
As Bayly maintains in Empire & Information: Intelligence Gathering and Social Communication in India, 1780-1870, the rituals of writing in the Mughal royal chancelleries had been elaborate. The whole nobility had been brought up to revere the art of insha or letter writing as a tool of literacy and as a form of regulating proper social relations. The ‘letter book’ became a key form of instruction in right conduct and collections from the Mughal period and the Eighteenth Century were still used as schoolbooks in the mid-19th Century. Thus, a munshi was an expert in diplomatic and social departments.
The family name munshi was adopted by some families whose ancestors were honoured with this title and were responsible for administering various offices, etc. These families (selective) were and are regarded as nobility. Alam and Subramaniam in their joint book, Writing the Mughal World inform us that the works, such as the Nig rn ma-’i Munsh (Munshi’s Letter Book), were primarily concerned with how a munsh was to be properly trained and which technical branches of knowledge he ought rightfully to claim a mastery of.
Earlier still, from the reign of Jahangir (r. 1605–28), a classic text titled, Insh ’-i-Harkaran, the author of which was Harkaran Das Kamboh of Multan, who claimed to have served with his family as scribes in the high Mughal administration. From the middle of the Seventeenth Century, the departments of accountancy (siy q), draftsmanship (insh ’), and the office of revenue minister (d w n) were mostly filled by these Kayastha and Khatri munsh s and muharrirs, Harkaran Das being the first known of these.
The celebrated Chandra Bhan Brahman was another influential member of this fraternity, rated second only to the M r Munsh himself, Shaikh Abu’l Fazl ibn Mubarak (1551–1602). Importantly, while a large numbers of Muslims, Kayastha and Khatri boys entered open educational institutions in the great Indo-Muslim cities to learn basic Persian, accountancy and the Islamic disciplines, the type of specialist literary and political education required for high-level political and diplomatic service was very hard to come by. The coded language of political exchange referred to Arabic, Persian and Sanskrit classics. That indeed was an enviable ethos that munshi(s) used to carry. So, why frown if anyone addresses you as a munshi?
Under the Mughals, munshis depended critically on royal favour. However, in the era of the post-Mughal states, in the capacity of the master of the pen, the account books as well as the political players, they acquired independent bases of social power. This also gave rise to a tradition of state service above and beyond allegiance to any particular king or dynasty.
By controlling diplomatic relations between the small states and the semi-independent provinces of the former empire and serving the new Company state, writers could enrich themselves and their kin groups, converting grants-in-aid for service into more permanent landholdings.
In indigenous society, the royal munshi was at the top of a hierarchy which stretched up from the common writer of the bazaar, through the clerks and men of business of Indian commercial firms to the clerks of individual landowners and notables. The commercial communities used their own family members to write the accounts and Bengali or Hindi commercial letters. They needed Persian writers to communicate with the local officials and to check or confirm grants recorded by the registrar.
Expert munshis with a long experience were an extraordinarily valuable resource for the 18th Century states and for the Company. The best ones could command high salaries. Abdul Kadir Khan received Rs 1,000 per month from the Company. It was the highest scale of reward ever granted to a native.
I wish the individual who has been called a munshi not to be upset because it is indeed honorific. The person who intended to hurl it as an abuse should know that it carries positive connotation. Munshis were from the class of literati.
The writer is Professor in the faculty of Liberal Arts at the Beaconhouse National University, Lahore. He can be reached at email@example.com