Games of Peacock Thrones

Posted in fantasy, history, South Asia, what ifs by jrahman on April 8, 2018

I haven’t read Helen Dale’s new book, but Jesus as an extremist, political philosophy of imperialism — sure sounds promising.  However, what about the counterfactual of an industrialised Rome?  I did read the author’s notes, and some commentary, with much interest.  This got me thinking.  What about a counterfactual of an industrialised Mughal Empire?

The most elaborately conceived alternate history of the Mughal Empire that I am aware of is Gurkani Alam.  Here, Dara Shikoh becomes the Emperor instead of Aurangzeb, and the Empire survives into the 20th century.  In fact, it is the predominant global power in this world.  Industrialisation and associated advances in science and technology happens in South Asia, and the world looks distinctively Desi.  The thing is, Mughal Empire is not the only thing different in this fictional world.  Russia and England also have very different histories from the 17th century onwards, and too many fantasies ultimately make for a less fantastic experience.

What we want is some kind of ceteris paribus exercise — everything else in the rest of the world remains the same, but Dara becomes the Emperor, does not exhaust the Empire’s energies in wars, and is succeeded by other able rulers.  In that world, would the Mughal Empire still have become the predominant global power?  Or would it have limped into the 20th century like the Ottomans?  Perhaps it would have become prey to foreign interventions and informal colonialism, like the Ming China?  Or perhaps there would have been a Desi version of the Meiji Restoration.

As Amartya Sen argued a decade ago, all these possibilities were foreclosed by the John Company.  (As an aside, Sen’s smackdown of Niall Ferguson isn’t as fierce as Pankaj Mishra‘s, but is still good fun.)  But then again, the Company Raj became possible because the Mughals had already declined decades before the Battle of Plassey.  After all, Nadir Shah had grabbed the famed Peacock Throne, adding his name to the English lexicon, when Robert Clive was just a pre-tween!  And ultimately, the Mughal decline was due not to any one emperor, but the problem that has bedevilled all empires — how to avoid a series of bad emperors.

Mughals didn’t have any clear succession rule.  In the central Asian tribes of their ancestry, potential successors to a chief would engage in campaigns, and jo jeeta wohi Sikander, literally.  Except for the Akbar-to-Jahangir, every Great Mughal succession involved fratricidal wars of succession.  It’s just that unto Aurangzeb, the eventual victor was good enough to restore the imperial might, whereas this wasn’t the case for those who came after him.

Simply replacing Aurangzeb with Dara Shikoh wouldn’t have made succession any more peaceful, nor reduce the risk of a run of bad emperors.  In the Gurkani Alam, the Mughal Empire eventually evolves into a constitutional monarchy where the Emperor’s absolutism is curbed by a Great Charter that grants considerable power to various aristocracies.  Could something like that really happen?

In a number of places (sorry, no link) Sen and Ramachandra Guha refuted Ferguson’s (and others’) claim that Indian democracy is a beneficial legacy of the Raj.  There was no representative government under the Raj, nor were the courts or the media free before 1947.  These features of democracy have been the results of conscious efforts of Indians, Sen and Guha argue.  But the two authors have their differences too (again, no link).  Sen has traced an indigenous liberal democratic tradition dating back millennia, whereas Guha claims that ideas of constitutional democracy in India is a 20th century development.  According to Guha, people like BR Ambedkar derived their ideas not from traditional Indian sources, but from modern west.  Of course, such notions could have been adopted without colonialism.  But, as Mishra has argued (still no link), when faced with western modernity, it’s not only liberal democracy that non-western thinkers adopted.

Okay, this is a fascinating digression that require a post of two of its own.  For now, let me just express scepticism that any Mughal Emperor would voluntarily move away from absolutism.  After all, even Akbar moved in the opposite direction, trying to fashion himself as a later-day-Pharaoh!

Could some other form collective rule emerge in a pre-modern subcontinent?  Now, isn’t that an interesting alternate history to explore?

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