Modern Asian Studies

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Modern Asian Studies (2009), 43:909-937 Cambridge University Press
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Research Article

Hundi/Hawala: The Problem of Definition1


a1 Economic History Department, London School of Economics, Houghton Street, London WC2A 2AE, UK Email:
Article author query
martin m [Google Scholar]


In contemporary times, Hundi has collected countless labels; the international press has spurned innumerable villainous descriptions, the bulk of which have helped to perpetuate a dense fog of notoriety. The critical problem lies in definition. As there is an incomplete understanding of hundi's form and remit, there is also a rather limited understanding of why the system persists, set against the backdrop of modern banking. In many ways the problem of definition presented legal and financial authorities of the early and late twentieth century with core issues which remain unresolved and problematic for authorities in the twenty-first century. By drawing on archival and other historical material pertaining to the system's usage amongst Indian merchants, this paper attempts to tackle much of the confusion and many misconceptions surrounding hundi. The discussion explores the idea that hundi is more accurately described as an indigenous banking system endowed with a complex range of functions, but whose central purpose is trade.


1 I would particularly like to thank John Harriss, Gareth Austin, Tirthankar Roy and last, but not least, Alexander Evans for excellent guidance, comments and unfailing encouragement. Any errors are purely my own.