Presented here is my Master’s thesis, “The Struggle for Empire and the Forces of Regionalism in South Asia: A Historical Study of International Relations and the Development of State Institutions.” It was written at Georgetown University and finalized in May 2014. I would like to make it available here so that my research can be read and cited by anyone interested in the subject of South Asia, its history, and the evolution of its foreign policy. Note: the following is not for reproduction, and any use of this thesis must be cited properly.
India is a land that is easy to conquer and hard to rule. This fact has characterized the past millennium of South Asian history, which has witnessed the creation of many empires that swallowed countless smaller states only for those empires to break apart into small states again.  Historically, Indian states have lacked longevity. The evanescence of smaller states and the instability of larger states were linked. Smaller states tended to derive from the native Indic tradition while empires originated from the Turkic tradition. The Turkic tradition tended to be expansionist, leading to the demise of smaller states. On the other hand, Indic states had large populations and a vast class of nobles and elites, which tended to be incorporated into Turkic states, leading to their eventual demises whenever they overstretched and lost the ability to control or pay off their constituent nobles. India’s alluring wealth and geography consistently lured new invaders to the land, repeating the cycle over and over again as the flat terrain and lack of natural defenses within India made it an easy and rich picking until an empire foundered in the task of administering a land that was too large and a population too numerous and diverse.
The result of this see-sawing between empires and smaller states was the institutional weakness of the state in South Asia, a fact that persists to this day. Small states could not develop permanent institutions because their existences were frequently compromised while large states fell apart before they could develop administrative structures. As a result, South Asia as a region has little tradition in efficient bureaucracies, a fact reflected in the poor state of governance and public infrastructure. It could not develop on the Chinese path, which led to a successful bureaucratic empire or the European path that ensured in the creation of multiple successful nation-states.
Laying out the Problem
A weak state is a state that is low in capacity, defined in terms of its ability to carry out its objectives. These objectives can vary from compelling every child within a state’s territory to attend school, to collecting revenue from any citizen who is supposed to pay tax, to the ability to use force internally and externally to meet its security objectives. A weak state thus lacks the coercive ability to enforce the writ of its governance over its entire territory. According to the sociologist Max Weber, weak states are additionally characterized by an inability to maintain a monopoly of legitimate violence within their territory. By this definition, Indian states have a long tradition of being weak; for example, during the Mughal period (1526-1858) in North India, armed peasants and zamindars (landlords and local gentry) restricted the ability of the state to penetrate the countryside where the majority of the population lived and directly collect revenue. Instead, the Mughal state was forced to compromise by incentivizing local landlords to cooperate through the offer of various financial and titular rewards.
The alternative to a weak state is a strong state, one that has clear sovereignty over a defined territory, a monopoly on legitimate violence, and the ability to impose taxation directly over its population. These types of states emerged in East Asia, especially China during its imperial period and in Europe during the early modern era. On the other hand, South Asian states failed to achieve this degree of governmental capacity. It is important to note that the terms weak and strong states do not necessarily denote the actual military strength or weakness of a state, but only the administrative, institutional, financial, and organizational abilities of a state. Strong states have frequently been threatened by non-state actors (for example, the Mongols) or by states much weaker than them. A relatively recent example was the threat posed by the Barbary States to European states as well as the United States in the early 19th century.
As Francis Fukuyama argues, it is important to understand that the condition of a state is not merely a function of contemporary politics but is rooted in the social structure and history of the society it represents. According to the noted economist Amartya Sen, the modern Indian state lacks the institutional ability to implement many of its policies, which are necessary for the overall development that strengthens both individuals and the state.  This is reflected by the growth of private health and educational services for those who can afford them, while public infrastructure is frequently neglected, leading to poor outcomes among the majority of the population. For example, around 50 percent of the Indian population lacks access to modern sanitation and must practice open defecation. The inability of the Indian state to enforce its own objectives and laws is even clearer when it comes to education; primary education is theoretically mandatory in India. A survey in 2006 determined that up to 20 percent of Indian children between the ages of six to 14 were not attending school. Of those students who attended school, 33 percent were absent at any given time, while 20 percent of teachers failed to show up to school on any given day. The combined probability of a child and his or her teacher being present on an average day is barely above 50 percent. Moreover, on half the days a teacher attended school, there was no teaching activity. Therefore, the public education system in India suffers from severe neglect due to the state’s inability to compel teachers to teach and students to attend school (due to the state’s inability to enforce contracts which require a controllable and accountable police force, judiciary, and other institutions) and the state’s inability to fund schools and other institutions (due to its inability to enforce its own revenue collection laws). Similar problems are evident in many other South Asian states such as Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Nepal though their strengths and weaknesses vary in the specifics and regions with more unstable histories, such as the state of Bihar in India are the most prone to these types of problems. The problem of the weak South Asian state is especially evident among contemporary observers of larger states such as India and Pakistan, which despite their size, location, and potential influence often fail to harness their state power to produce domestic and foreign policy outcomes comparable to other states of similar sizes and locations.
The main lesson from these examples is that South Asian states have difficulty establishing the institutions necessary for the implementation of their objectives. This is not a recent phenomenon, the result of misguided policies or the failure of democracy. Rather, modern South Asia’s institutional weakness is the result of and continuation of processes that began hundreds and even thousands of years ago. In other worlds, South Asian states have been characterized by weakness even in pre-contemporary times. Medieval Indian states “never tried to integrate the political units they conquered into a uniform administrative structure…defeated rulers were left in place to pay tribute and continue the actual governance of their territories.” When a state ceased to function, due to external aggression or internal decay, its various local rulers inevitably broke away. Thus in India, states were characterized by suzerainty, not sovereignty. David C. Kang, describing the nature of Indic states writes that such states were “constellations of power, whose extent varied in relation to attraction to the center. They were not states whose administrative control reached to defined frontiers.” Central power often served to coordinate autonomous, often mutually hostile principalities. The political instability and consequential instability of states and their institutions instead lead to a social situation in India characterized by a resilient social structure, which took the place of state institutions, and in a cyclical pattern, prevented stronger state institutions from forming. Thus, it is clear that South Asian states have a long and ongoing problem with establishing fully functioning polities.
In addition to the argument that South Asia’s weak states are the result of ephemeral states caused by international factors, there are several alternative explanations. One set of explanations pins the problem of the weak state in South Asia onto contemporary administrative failures. Amartya Sen has argued that the Indian government is indifferent to implementing policies that would strengthen the Indian state as this would weaken the hold of the elites that dominate the government. A similar argument put forth by political scientist Stanley A. Kochanek is that the government of the late Prime Minister Indira Gandhi specifically weakened India’s political system by personalizing power and enabling criminals to enter Parliament.
A second set of arguments pins the weakness of South Asian states on their colonial histories. Sociologist Matthew C. Lange notes that contemporary South Asian states were set up to meet a particular set of challenges that are no longer relevant, which results in a their inability to implement modern institutions. The initial purpose of Indian institutions, as set up by the British, was the implantation of order and the extraction of resources; only a small British bureaucracy was necessary for this. Independent South Asian nations have kept this basic apparatus. The sociologist Barrington Moore Jr. goes further back and argues that the institutional problem began with the Mughal Empire and its particular structure. According to Moore, the Mughal dependency on tax farming for revenue retarded the development of institutions, which were unnecessary. This saved the Empire the cost of establishing an expensive bureaucracy.
Finally, a third set of theories argue that the weak state in the subcontinent is the result of cultural and religious factors. This explanation was utilized by Hegel and Max Weber. In this tradition, Francis Fukuyama has argued that India’s inability to concentrate political power is rooted in its religion, specifically the caste system. Indian caste is the “division of society into theoretically watertight and hierarchically ordered compartments.” In India, the Brahmins, the highest caste was usually concerned with religious and metaphysical matters rather than governmental issues, which resulted in India’s intellectual elite being distanced from politics and economics, unlike in China, where the Confucian elite was involved with governance. According to Fukuyama, this impacted governance in India as the ruling class was often illiterate and relied on an uneducated cadre of patrimonial officials for administration.
While all of the above arguments bear some truth in them, none fully explain the weak state in South Asia. For example, Fukuyama’s arguments do not stand up to historic Indian literature that clearly shows warriors and rulers writing and maintaining records. India was not the only region of the world with a separate warrior and intellectual elite, as this bifurcation of social roles was a relatively common phenomenon observed in Japan, medieval Europe, and ancient Mesopotamia. Caste itself may be the result of rather than the cause of weak institutions, as it often served to assign people to social roles in the absence of a government. Likewise, contrary to colonialist and contemporary explanations, India is not the only society with a history of colonialism or tax farming- common in many large empires- nor is it the only place where an elite seeks to monopolize the government. In order to understand the specific weaknesses of South Asian states, we must seek to understand its specific history.
The Evanescent State
While there are many theories for explaining the weak state in South Asia, the primary reason for the weak state in South Asia is the result of international circumstances that prevented the longevity of states. Evanescent states in the subcontinent did not persist long enough for administrative and bureaucratic projects to develop or have a significant impact on society, especially at the lower and local levels, where the state had little to no presence. Many of the prominent social and cultural features of the subcontinent such as local self-organization and caste are the result and not cause of weak states in South Asia. Macroscopically, from around the year 1000 CE, South Asia experienced politically instability because a series of empires, of mostly Turkic origin attempted to dominate the region but could not do so, and were prone to external threats and internal dissolution. Thus, empire-like bureaucratic institutions, as in China, were unable to develop in India. On the other hand, the smaller, more regional states that emerged when would-be pan-Indian empires were weak or non-existent had political traditions more rooted in the Indian political tradition, with some Persian influence over time. These states had the potential to be more stable than the larger empires because of their relatively smaller populations and areas, making them easier to run. However, this did not occur because smaller states were frequently conquered by reemerging or new empires in South Asia (including notably, the Mughals and British), and had no institutional continuity when they were conquered, unlike the institutional continuity of an entity like Scotland when it united with England. Thus, the smaller states of India did not develop into a community of medium sized nation states with strong internal governance as in Europe. Bureaucratic mechanisms did not take hold as states tended to be short lived, as the unstable environment of India discouraged investment in economic improvement and institutions. The sociologist Max Weber acknowledged that the institutional stability that led to strong states in Western Europe was the result of a “long-term trajectory.”
The Indic Political Tradition
By the turn of the first millennium, the primarily Hindu states of South Asia had taken on the distinct characteristics that would define traditional Indic states. Smaller, more regional states were the norm and centralization was limited. Standing armies were rare and local rulers held both civil and military power within a state, raising taxes and men for military service from the military castes and remitting a portion of these to their overlords. Whenever a kingdom expanded in India, the local elites who had held power in their respective territories prior to their co-option into that empire continued to maintain power as local nobility and remained in power upon the retreat of that state.
The dominant pattern among Indian states was to coalesce into smaller, more compact states by the end of the first millennium because these states were more durable and stable as they were built around a core territory. The core territory of a state was usually centered on an especially fertile river valley or delta, the wealth of which allowed the state to control less wealthy and less well fed outlying areas. Indian states at the turn of the first millennium were smaller than the short-lived attempts at empire in classical India, most of which lasted on an average of 150 years, including the most famous of empires, the Mauryan Empire (320-185 BCE).
These smaller Indian states in the medieval period tended to be richer, more powerful, and more productive than larger, more loosely controlled states because their smaller sizes enabled them to center on a productive core region. This allowed dynasties to be directly involved in the rule and supervision of their territories. Ultimately, these territories were held together by networks of “personal loyalty, alliance, and fealty” which are stronger and easier to continually maintain at smaller scales. The most resilient territory was the local region, because of the density of patriarchal alliances within that region. The Indian countryside of this period was densely populated and filled with a huge number of local lords and rulers which made it difficult from both an administrative and military point of view to replace local elites; rather, various local dynasties chose not to threaten their alliance partners. Furthermore, Hindu political tradition held that laws and customs were guided by dharma, a broad term encompassing the concepts of justice, law, tradition, righteousness, and religion. Dharma was independent of the laws a king might make and was a source of legitimization in India, in the same manner by which the powers of a medieval Christian ruler were theoretically limited by Christian teachings and norms (for example, despite the benefits of polygamy in resolving succession problems, no king ever resorted to this arrangement since it was outside the norms of the Christian community). Thus, Hindu kings were supposed to uphold dharma and could not simply overturn the social structure and experiment with new political systems as this would seriously undermine their credibility in the eyes of both their subjects and peers.
As a result of these factors, local elites were co-opted into states, a strategy that works better in smaller states rather than larger ones because in small states, local elites and monarchs were able to use each other’s proximity so strengthen their power and support over the same land and people, with the elite strengthening the dynasty’s local longevity and support by acting as its agents on the ground and the dynasty propping up the elite through legitimization rituals and financial support.  Close cooperation between elites and sovereigns in these states led to the development of nascent institutions and infrastructure as roles stabilized over time, and rulers cooperated with their agents on the ground for the expansion of irrigation, construction of temples, and the raising of armies to protect villages against bandits and territory against incursions.
The social and political arrangements of these states, while relatively successful on small scales, proved to be untenable on larger scales. The presence of a large class of landowning military aristocrats made it difficult for a state in India to both conquer and administer territory given the vast distances involved. Indian states in such a system has little incentive to construct large empires ruled directly; expansion of territory usually involved little more than the collection of tribute, and nominal loyalty of locals more for the sake of prestige than for any actual territorial gain. Hindu states ruled in a manner similar to medieval European states. Theirs was an international system characterized by slow attrition and gains that did little to change the existing power structures and local elite in newly incorporated territories. Indian states of this period rarely fought on horses, rarely fought to the death, and rarely built strong forts to consolidate their gains. Although war was a common fact of life, as in all societies before the contemporary era, it was rarely total or final and rarely involved permanent political changes or territorial gain.
Because the basis of institutions in Indian states was a network of interactions rather than a bureaucracy, smaller states were more conductive towards properly functioning institutions. Over time, arrangements between nobles and royalty in some European countries, such as England, developed into parliament and a dense network of law, precedents, and traditions that gradually replaced the simple interpersonal relations that previously held kingdoms together. A similar phenomenon might have occurred in India but international developments intervened.
The Turkic Tradition
At the turn of last millennium, a new type of state entered the South Asian international system, starting with the conquests of Mahmud of Ghazni, the Turkic ruler of much of present day Afghanistan. Over the next two centuries, Turkic warlords based in Afghanistan gradually eroded Indian states, a process which culminated in the establishment of the Delhi Sultanate in 1206, which was in turn succeeded by the Mughal Empire- also founded by a Turkic warlord- in 1526. After 1000 CE, Turkic peoples, originally tribes from Central Asia converted to Islam and rapidly expanded their power throughout many of their neighboring sedentary societies, often forming a ruling class over non-Turkic populations; Turkic tribes were also a major component of the Mongol Empire. All three of the famous Islamic gunpowder empires that arose in the early modern period- the Ottoman, Safavid (Persia), and Mughal were ruled by warrior elite of Turkic extraction, similar to the manner in which Germanic warriors carved out kingdoms from the Western Roman Empire.
The arrival of Turkic states in India changed the nature of the Indian state system due to the distinct characteristics of the Turkic state. The Turkic state of this period had a bifurcate nature, owing to its twin origins. The civilian, administrative aspect of the state was run by Persian (called Tajiks in Central Asia) or Persianate bureaucrats who used Persian as the language of administration and scholarship and adopted Persian courtly norms. This was the case even in regions where Persians did not form the majority, as a single literary Persian culture prevailed from Kashgar (in today’s Xinjiang, China) to Constantinople, in a similar manner to which French culture and literature dominated the European aristocracy of the 18th century.
While Persian culture continued to dominate much of the Middle East and Central Asia in this period, actual power had fallen out of Persian and Arab hands into Turkic hands during the first century of the second millennium. Turkic warrior elites ruled and the military was exclusively Turkic. Turkic rulers, owing to their origins as pastoral nomads tended to be less involved in the administration of limited spaces and favored spreading out over large spaces. Inspired by the examples of nomad-conquerors such as Genghis Khan and Tamerlane, Turkic rulers believed in their divine mandate to rule over as large an empire as possible and aspire towards universal empire. This idea was further enhanced by the Islam of the Turkic rulers, who saw their empires as projects meant to bring about the fulfillment of the concept of a universal, boundless ummah, a single Islamic community. Due to the expansive nature of Turkic empires, whatever administrative techniques they had inherited from the Persians were put to use for extractive purposes, in order to support further military campaigning or to buy the elite off. Historians generally agree that the Turkic empires of India, including the Mughal, were extractive, colonial empires, whose administrative techniques were built on and adapted by the British for similar purposes. Administration in such empires mainly revolved around taxation and revenue extraction and not development, hindering the development of large scale, imperial institutions. ,
Although these two streams worked together, they were often at cross purposes. The Persian tradition emphasized centralized governance based on the collection of taxes from a settled population, a concept which had less appeal to Turkic rulers who were mostly descended from nomads. Turkic rulers enforced their rule through loose confederations of allied tribes and groups, similar to the manner in which the Mongols created a confederation of various peoples to rule their vast territories. Turks used Persian administration only grudgingly as required for revenue. Although Turkic sovereignty was sacred and universal in theory, it was also collective and without a strong ruler or clear goal, Turkic rule fragmented and often grew weak, as was the case with many early Turkic states such as the Seljuk Empire. Loyalty to a sacred bloodline buffeted by strong rulers held the Ottoman, Safavid, and Mughal states together for a while, but upon their failure, these states all quickly weakened as their component groups asserted themselves.
It was difficult for Turkic rulers, even if they utilized the full arsenal of Persian administrative techniques, to actually run a large empire because of the fractured nature of its ruling class. This problem compounded itself in India because local rulers had to be accommodated, adding yet another layer of factitious nobility that needed to be pacified with revenues and titles. The Padshahnama, written during the reign of the Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan (1628-1658) notes that the Mughal nobility was a highly mixed group of different interests only held together by the imperial family itself. This group was comprised of Persians (28%), Turks (23%), Rajputs, a Hindu warrior caste (16%), Indian Muslims (15%), Afghans (6%), and Marathas, a Hindu group from the Deccan (2%).
Thus, the inherent problem of the imperial Turkic state lay in the fact that such a state aspired towards a universal empire without the structure necessary for doing so and lacked the means to establish an effective administrative structure without undermining the power of the very forces that upheld the empire in the first place- the various elite groups that ruled. All Turkic states faced this dilemma, which while mitigated from time to time, never disappeared. In India, the strength of local rulers combined with the tribalism of the Turkic elite compounded the problem and further prevented the emergence of a large strong state; likewise, Turkic and Mughal conquests prevented the emergence of strong small states.
The Two Traditions in Conflict
Two very different political traditions collided in India starting ten centuries ago. Understanding the geopolitical implications of this involves a brief overview Indian history over the past millennium. Of the two traditions, the Turkic tradition was the more destabilizing tradition because it destroyed old structures without providing the infrastructure and institutions for the maintenance of its new structure. Historian John Keay notes that the Middle Ages “witnessed the emergence of those strong centralized and mostly monarchal states which would become the basic units of European history.” He goes on to argue that something similar occurred in India in regions such as “Bengal, Gujarat, Kashmir, Orissa, and the south” which all began to “forge the territorial, political, and cultural identities associated with the concept of the nation-state” but nation-states in India were stillborn because of the expansion of the Mughal and British empires, while a similar process had occurred previously due to the expansion of the Delhi Sultanate.
In 1200, a motley collection of states dominated India. Some had centuries old roots and many were moving towards a stable coexistence with each other, being entrenched in their regions and unable to exercise control over other regions, a reflection of the Indic state pattern. In 1206, the first major Islamic Turkic state, the Delhi Sultanate was founded in Delhi as a result of the conquests of Mahmud of Ghor (in present day Afghanistan). The Delhi Sultanate gradually conquered native states throughout India. Unlike Hindu states which generally left the apparatus of a conquered state in place, the Delhi Sultanate and the Mughal Empire often displaced the previous rulers of a state and established new institutions to co-opt local nobility, undermining dynastic and institutional continuity. As the goal of the Turkic states was to dominate and rule over a large empire, the earlier Indic tradition of leaving a defeated kingdom and its royal family more or less intact did not appeal to them and often new Muslim governors were appointed to rule over new conquests before they themselves rebelled and set up independent states.
The story of Vijayanagara illustrates well the nature of both Turkic and Indic states. The Sultan of Delhi, Muhammad Tughluq (1324-1351) led a large army into the Deccan Peninsula of Southern India, displacing and destroying the many native states there and conquering most the peninsula. Like many rulers in Indian history, he could not establish a lasting empire because of the enormous number of nobles in his empire, the demand for taxes from his population, and the great distances involved. In conquering South India, he needed to raise taxes, which led to revolts throughout his empire. As a result of this chaos, several of his governors and local rulers attempted to break away in the more stable portions of his empire in northern India. At the same time, he quickly lost control over his new conquests. Out of the chaos of the Delhi Sultanate’s invasion of south India, the Hindu kingdom of Vijayanagara arose. Vijayanagara, unlike previous Hindu states, was not an old state simply reemerging after a period of feudal subjugation to another Hindu state. The Muslim conquests had destroyed the old states of India and the previous states in the region of Vijayanagara, the Hoysala kingdom and Warangal could simply not be revived, as their royalty had perished.
Despite the fact that it originated due to Turkic interference, Vijayanagara attempted to rule in the tradition of Indic states. In an India filled with only this type of state, institutions and permanent states could have developed. For example, Vijayanagara itself was run in a decentralized manner, allowing local elites to put down roots when possible. Additionally, Vijayanagara did not try to destroy and incorporate neighboring states. One of the greatest rivals of Vijayanagara was the Gajapati state to its northeast (in present day Orissa), and the two states had a long history of conflict. In a war lasting from 1513-1517, Vijayanagara prevailed and occupied the Gajapati capital of Cuttack; however instead of annexing the Gajapatis, Vijayanagara only occupied some land and accepted an acknowledgement of superiority before restoring most of the territory of their erstwhile enemies. Had the war turned out the other way, it is likely Vijayanagara could have expected similar treatment in accordance with Indic norms.
However, neither Vijayanagara nor an Indic international system was to last because of the presence of Turkic empires in India, however prone they were to fragmentation. Vijayanagara’s other great rival was the Bahmani Sultanate, to its northwest in present day Maharashtra. The Bahmani Sultanate was founded by a Turkish general of the Delhi Sultanate who broke away from his masters; this state in turn broke into five states. This circumstance probably saved Vijayanagara and allowed it to develop for two hundred years. Eventually though, a union of these five sultanates destroyed Vijayanagara in 1565, leading to its fragmentation into a number of new states as well as the conquest of portions of its territory by the victorious sultanates.All the Sultanates and successor states of Vijayanagara in south India were in turned reincorporated into an expanding Turkic Empire- the Mughals, which completely displaced existing states until it too fell apart, repeating the cycle over and over again.
The Mughal Empire is the definitive example of state formation and dissolution in India and an exemplar of the patterns that characterize the region, in which neither Turkic nor Indic states could last. The Mughal Empire was founded in 1526 when the king of Kabul, Babur, a Turkic descendent of Tamerlane and Genghis Khan (hence the name Mughal which means Mongol) conquered Delhi. Babur confesses in his memoirs that, in the spirit of his ancestral tradition, he sought to create a large empire spanning all of India; in his words, he “craved Hindustan.” This was the typical desire for a universal empire characteristic of Turkic rulers. The previous empire in India, the Delhi Sultanate had long since given way to autonomous states with the exception of a small area around Delhi. Babur noted that India had a great multitude of states including the dominions of: “five Muslim padishahs…two [Hindus]… [while] the mountains and jungles are held by many petty rays and rajas.” Contrary to this fragmentation, Babur and his Mughal heirs conceived of India as one country that ended at the ocean on three sides (being a peninsula).
Like many Turkic states, the Mughals had to hold together various groups in alliance. To begin with, Babur’s initial band included many different tribes as well as Persians. In India, the Mughal elite were a very small minority ruling over a vast population of 150 million individuals. It was only possible to rule and utilize this source of manpower through co-opting the indigenous elites (including Turkic nobles who had been in India for centuries). While the Mughal Empire did not leave previous administrative structures intact like Indic states did, it did not totally impose its own order either. Many local elites were brought into the system through enrollment in a new Mughal nobility, a pattern especially prominent during the reign of Akbar (1556-1605), who brought most of north India under his control. These local elites who become Mughal functionaries, the mansabdars, were rotated round the empire in different capacities instead of holding their land in a feudal capacity tied to their home region. However, they still retained their identities and ties to their home regions.Mansabdars and other nobles received lands, salaries and rights of taxation from the Mughal government, essentially a strategy to keep them from revolting while they performed useful work. Since these nobles and the Mughals were concerned with revenue and military levies, they did very little to establish more permanent legal and taxation systems. In many ways, Mughal power floated above society rather than penetrating the local level and establishing lasting structures.
However, this system, instead of stabilizing as a workable institution broke down during the reign of the emperor Aurangzeb (1658-1707) under whom the empire reached the peak of its expansion. Aurangzeb’s conquests included most of the successor states of Vijayanagara and the Bahmani Sultanate in South India. This however led to the same problems previous empires experienced- imperial overstretch. New conquests required the enrollment of new nobles and new revenues to be found for them, but since so many new nobles entered the Mughal system, there was simply not enough revenue for them. This in turn disillusioned both new and old nobles who could not gain much from a bankrupt empire. Both no longer had a stake in the system and waited for the opportunity to entrench themselves, while the military weakened, and several revolts broke out, leading to the establishment of new states by both rebellious Mughal nobles and native elites, such as the Marathas.
After the reign of the Mughal emperor Aurangzeb concluded in 1707, a lack of strong rulers in Delhi quickly allowed India to revert to its pattern of many states, as regions that existed independently of Mughal authority in the past quickly reasserted their independence. Although some new regional states of some strength such as the Marathas, Mysore, and the Sikh Empire were established soon afterwards, they too were short lived before being incorporated into yet another empire, the British Empire. The British Empire built upon many of the same techniques used by the Mughals including establishing an extractive economy and co-opting elites, leading to another case of empire building without deep institutional impact while setting the stage for their own demise because of the presence of so many indigenous interest groups. Empires meanwhile prevented the formation of stable states with consolidated borders and institutions. Thus short lived states were the norm in South Asia. This phenomenon can be appreciated by observing maps of Europe and India in 1500 and 1800 respectively. While many of the same states continued to exist in Europe during both periods, the states of 1800 South Asia are almost entirely new and different from the states of 1500. In between the two dates, the Mughal Empire came and left while Europe’s major states continued to slowly evolve without major breaks.
Norms of International Systems
Although it is clear that the development of South Asian states and their institutions were prevented by their lack of longevity, and that this was the case because of the interplay between regional, Indic and imperial, Turkic states, it is not as clear as to what operative factors led to this situation. Why did the region, filled with a mix of Indic and Turkic states not settle into some sort of equilibrium? What factors made it relatively easy for Indic states to be defeated and Turkic states to gain victory? The explanation for weak states in South Asia itself demands explanations. Three primary explanations for these questions are: 1) the lack of shared norms in India’s international system, 2) the nature of warfare in South Asia, and 3) geography.
South Asia was a region with two distinct types of states; distinct not only in their structural and political conceptions and goals but also deriving from different cultures with distinct philosophical and moral conventions. The region as a whole, unlike East Asia or Europe did not developed shared norms for the concepts of sovereignty and international diplomacy due to the presence of two different types of political entities. As a result, all the players involved found it difficult to come to a consensus on an acceptable regional system, preventing the emergence of interstate stability.
For most of the Middle Ages and modern period, European states shared a moral solidarity in holding to common norms. This was due to the fact that Europe as a whole was populated by states sharing a common culture, religion, and philosophy, the result of which was a region populated by states with similar norms, including the concept of legitimacy. According to Henry Kissinger, legitimacy “implies the acceptance of the framework of the international order by all major powers, at least to the extent that no state is…dissatisfied….” Legitimacy in this sense did not mean that national boundaries were static or sacrosanct but that changes to boundaries would be made legally via treaties and without much disruption to local customs. The great Austrian statesman Metternich, representing the view of many of his contemporaries was disturbed by Napoleon precisely because Napoleon did not respect established European norms. Metternich made a distinction between what he called conquests via facti by which he meant illegitimate territorial acquisitions without treaty or the consent of their rulers and conquêtes consommées, which refer to territorial acquisitions made through treaty, whether through diplomatic processes or through losing a war.
This legalism is apparent throughout European history when cases arose such that the king of England was also the duke of Normandy, a vassal to the king of France, thus simultaneously equal to and subordinate to the French monarchy in two different roles. This situation persisted for hundreds of years without any attempt to rectify this situation by the simple but illegal solution of declaring Normandy a fief of the English crown. To cite another example, in 1603, King James VI of Scotland became James I of England by hereditary right. However, despite being king of both countries, he ruled them separately, and the two countries remained separate legal entities until the Acts of Union of 1707 which united both countries as the United Kingdom only after the parliaments of both England and Scotland approved of their union. To most of the rest of the world, such legalisms would seem strange, as it would seem natural for a person who ruled several territories to rule them together as his provinces. However for both cultural and systemic reasons, this proved difficult in Europe: European rulers felt strongly obligated to achieve their goals through judicial means because of norms reinforced by a continent wide church while their international system was mostly insulated from the emergence of states from outside with different norms that could have undermined the European consensus. When certain parts of Europe such as the Balkans were removed from the European state system due to conquest, legalisms did not apply as another set of norms regarding state relations would take over. In the 1520s, Hungary elected the Austrian Hapsburg monarch as its king, who proceeded to rule it as a separate entity, in accordance with European norms. Around the same time, the majority of Hungary was conquered by the Ottomans, a Turkic state not bound by such norms and Ottoman Hungary, instead of remaining a legally separate entity became a Turkish province without any prior institutional continuity as there was in Austrian Hungary.
In India, such a legal consensus did not arise because there was no one community of nations with shared norms about territoriality. South Asia did not have a strong concept of boundaries or territoriality as two types of states that were mutually corrosive to each other’s stability shared the South Asian space. Territoriality as a law or norm shared by nations is an important component for the stability of an international system as it guarantees longevity of customs and institutions. States in such a system do not have to worry about the basic problem of their existence. As boundaries frequently shifted and new states frequently emerged, precise boundaries and territoriality did not matter. “A ruler ruled as far as he could collect taxes and maintain order. Where there were no taxes to collect, the precise boundary didn’t matter.” The Turkic empires of India sought to create a universal imperial space and claimed sovereignty over all of what they called the Kingdom of Hindustan, as their rulers, such as Babur saw India as a unitary political space unlike his Hindu predecessors. Such an ideology was at odds with the stable and independent existence of any other state in South Asia other than the one that ruled from Delhi. It was a view at odds with the traditional Hindu Indian conception of a state that was centered on a small core territory, where expansion was rare and small scale, and where triumphant kings, even those claiming titles such as Universal Emperor sought a position of first among equals. Defeated states were rarely annexed and reigning families infrequently dethroned as a result of the ideal espoused by Hindu kings. Even when Hindu rulers formed empires, these were usually the result of one king gaining suzerainty over existing rulers and thus taking on a special title, such as maharaja (great raja) to signify this.
Several aspects of warfare play a role in explaining the evolution of South Asia’s state system. First, the political setup of South Asia and its many rulers created the conditions that made a successful invasion easier. In Chapter IV of The Prince, Machiavelli argues that states with many lords are easy to conquer but hard to rule, an observation that is apt for India. Machiavelli argues that such states contain “barons [who] have states and their own subjects, who recognize them as lords and hold them in natural affection…” This is an “ancient body of lords, acknowledged by their own subjects, and beloved by them; they have their own prerogatives…the king [cannot] take these away except at his peril.” The presence of so many local rulers makes a unitary military response difficult for any state, especially the states of India. In a paragraph that closely mirrors the political development of India, Machiavelli summarizes that
One can easily enter there by gaining over some baron of the kingdom, for one always finds malcontents and such as desire a change. Such men, for the reasons given, can open the way into the state and render the victory easy; but if you wish to hold it afterwards, you meet with infinite difficulties, both from those who have assisted you and from those you have crushed. Nor is it enough for you to have exterminated the family of the prince, because the lords that remain make themselves the heads of fresh movements against you, and as you are unable either to satisfy or exterminate them, that state is lost whenever time brings the opportunity.
Indeed Babur noted in his memoirs that it was easy to hire or bribe men before major battles.
Secondly, Indic states could not put up a strong fight against Turkic armies in open battle, which allowed their penetration of India in the first place. Had Indian armies been more effective in battle, this could have prevented the establishment of non-Indic type states in India. It is also especially important to note that no strong state stood on the plains of Punjab near the Khyber Pass on the borders of today’s Afghanistan, from where almost all foreign armies, save the British, have entered India. Thus, India did not have strong states on its frontiers that could have taken the hit while other states developed behind them, as was the case in Europe, where Russia and the Byzantine Empire both absorbed most foreign incursions.
Native Indian armies faced numerous weaknesses and disadvantages in terms of tactics, technology, and strategy. On an elementary level, Indians like other sedentary peoples were weaker than people like the Turks and Afghans due to their mostly vegetarian diet. Grain diets of settled peoples “stunted their bones, rotted their teeth, and left them weak and prone to disease.” This is in contrast to people like the Turks who herded sheep, goats, and cattle and ate a significant amount of protein which allowed them to develop strong bones and go a few days without food. Mughal armies, like others which originated from poor and sparsely inhabited regions “compensated for their poverty by superior ferocity.”
Turkic armies also used horses much more effectively than Indian armies, a situation that remained true even when Turkic rulers set up kingdoms in South Asia. To begin with, cavalry originating from Central Asia were much stronger than in India due to the tropical climate being detrimental for horses and their diets. Familiarity with horses allowed for tactics such as fanning out and flanking the enemy on all sides before retreating out of the enemy’s range., Turkic armies also had significant practice using mounted archers while “Indian armies had few men accomplished enough to wield a bow while riding.” Additionally, the dependence on elephants by Indian armies to break enemy ranks was dangerous because elephants, if panicked, could easily inflict damage on their own troops. Finally, Turkic armies were better organized and centralized, despite the fact they were often composed of numerous different clans and tribes. There was always a core of professional soldiers who fought under the direct command of the commander who were used to battle as a result of their warrior lifestyle. This contrasts with Indian armies, which were essentially “coalitions composed of the separate fighting forces under individual lords who were called for duty when required. As a consequence, they often failed to coordinate on the battlefield.”
Additionally, Indian armies had less incentive or ability to strike into Afghanistan and Central Asia as such an attack involved fighting in higher altitudes and colder climates. Infantry and elephants trained in a tropical climate would have difficulty being effective in such a terrain and fighting an uphill battle is always more difficult than a downhill one. The same logistic problem preoccupies India today in regards to Tibet, which gives Chinese forces there a topographical advantage. Secondly, the dry, sparsely populated lands of Central Asia offered little incentive for plunder and conquest for the Indians. As a result, while the main Indian cities and source of food and wealth were always threatened, the opposite was not true of the Turkic homelands. Indian armies never attacked or tried to attack Turkic home bases, and as a result, always had to fight on the defensive. Like a chess player whose king is always in check cannot go on the offensive, similarly Indian armies had to protect their homelands without attempting to remove the source of the incursions. While Indian armies were not averse to attacking Mughal territories in the subcontinent itself, this fact meant that India was always dangerously open to new invasions from Central Asia.
While this put Indian armies at a disadvantage in terms of initiative, it also gave them the advantage of bogging down invaders. The fact that there was so many people and lords in India meant that there were many forts and armed camps throughout the land. This made it impossible for the outnumbered Turks to capture every fortress. Indian armies performed poorly in open battle but resisted sieges well. Due to the length and cost of sieges, Indian armies had the advantage of attrition, using time and distance against Mughal and other armies and employing guerilla tactics such as attacking supplies and lines of communication. The large portions of the subcontinent that were marsh and forest limited the scope of Mughal cavalry tactics to the great river valleys of the subcontinent. Traditional Turkic tactics of living off the land were difficult to employ in parts of India without grassland, requiring the transportation of food and fodder. These factors heavily incentivized the invading armies to use their limited superiority to force a negotiated surrender that would allow Indian lords to become their dependents. Thus, conquests by Turkic armies expanded the size of the ruling class, leading the aforementioned problems with supporting a large ruling class and broadening the possibility of a revolt by malcontent nobles. Conquering an empire in India was easier than holding on to it.
Finally, the geography of the subcontinent shaped the state system of South Asia. At first glance, the Indian subcontinent resembles the other great Eurasian peninsula, Europe. Both are analogous in terms of “territorial extent, historic levels of population, multiplicity of regional languages and cultures….” Furthermore, Europe minus the former Soviet Union is about the same size of the Indian subcontinent. It is natural for the presence of numerous kingdoms to be the default state of such a diverse region as India, as was the case in Europe. However, certain geographic features of India made it less conducive for the preservation of independent kingdoms.
The physical barriers within Europe are far more prominent than those in India. Europe is “split throughout by high mountain ranges and surrounded by seas that everywhere penetrated deep between its constituent parts.” There are numerous large islands (Britain) and peninsulas (Iberia, Italy, Scandinavia) as well as mountain enclaves (Switzerland). On the other hand, within India, the terrain is mostly flat throughout the entire subcontinent. There are only minor peninsulas and mountain ranges and few offshore islands. This makes the consolidation of independent kingdoms behind geographic barriers more difficult while making the conquest of the region as a whole easier. Furthermore, despite the barrier of the Himalaya Mountains which prevented conquest from the north and east, India’s western frontier in the direction of the Middle East and Central Asia was permeable and exposed to invasions, as a result of which a strong state could not develop on India’s frontiers to prevent excursions into the rest of India.,
As a result, India’s geography did not shield it from extra-Indian invasions or within India from aggressive armies, which could fan out along India’s great river valleys and conquer large spaces. However, unlike China, India did not experience long term unification either. While China proper is also flat like India, it is composed of almost continuous flat plain from north to south. On the other hand, India’s flat terrain is punctured with forests and marshes, as well as the Thar Desert. These regions nurtured separation and distinction both in their own territories and through providing mild barriers between river valleys and prevented the consolidation of a homogenous state.
Lastly, the climate of India is not homogenous, leading to drastically different irrigation and rainfall patterns throughout the subcontinent. The southwest monsoon arrives in different places in different strengths at different times throughout the year, leading to different modes of life throughout the subcontinent, such as herding being prominent in the west and fishing and gathering in jungles more prominent in the east. The uneven monsoons also created dry zones between populated belts of land. Agricultural patterns were not uniform, making it difficult for coordinate and synchronize taxation (mostly assessed in crops), administration, and armies in different parts of the subcontinent each of which had a different rhythm of life. All of these factors enabled fragmentation in an otherwise unitary region; Indian geography led to the “paradox of a land that invited dominion full of lesser rulers who felt bound to resist it.”
The weak states that characterize South Asia are the legacy of South Asia’s political history. Major powers such as India and Pakistan are of great importance for international security, so it is important to understand why their political systems are relatively inefficient. American policy making can greatly benefit from having proportional expectations for its partners in the region. The Economist, echoing the thoughts of many policy makers in the United States and elsewhere, noted that “India is still widely seen as a nearly-power that cannot quite get its act together.” This is a cause of some angst in Washington, where some policy makers had grandiose plans for a 21st century partnership with an emerging India that would play its part in policing the Indian Ocean and countering China while serving as a major destination for business and investment. However neither India nor its neighbors can rise to their potential while they struggle to strengthen their institutions.
The institutional weakness of South Asia will be responsible for instability in the short and medium terms. The lingering tendencies of large states to break up into smaller, regional components will be a major destabilizing factor in both India and Pakistan in years to come and has been observed in the case of Bangladesh, which seceded from Pakistan. The huge territories and institutional weaknesses of these states will make economic development slow and painful, further incentivizing regions to want to go their own way under the belief that they will be more governable. In addition to regional problems, weak institutions also fail to check social strife in neglected regions. Most states in South Asia have various armed groups that take advantage of the missing state to formant rebellion and violence such as the Maoists in Central India and Nepal, the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka, and the Taliban in Pakistan. The next century will be vital in determining if South Asia holds together or fractures into smaller states as unwieldy governments collapse.
In the longer term, South Asia will stabilize however. If South Asia fractures, presumably the smaller, more homogenous and manageable states that emerge will develop more coherent institutions and eventually prosper. On the other hand, if it does not fracture, it would mean that gradually, over time, South Asia’s states have will put down roots in their societies and grow stronger. In both cases, stability and institutions are assured in the time frame of a century, but it is the next 50-100 years that the most uncertain as to what path South Asia will take. If they do not fracture- as is possible due to the strength of their armies and the growth of nationalism- they will stabilize and develop institutions because global conditions are currently favorable towards such a path.
In today’s global environment, it is inconceivable that a sovereign state could be dismembered and disappear from the map as was the case in previous eras. The current international system guarantees an unprecedented level of stability. There is very little risk of a South Asian state failing to develop institutions because its very existence is in question. As a result, there is now a guarantee that institutions and states have a long term chance of survival. The international system is also characterized by shared norms and laws, which all nation-states have agreed to in theory which reduces the misunderstandings between states on major issues pertaining to sovereignty. If countries survive, they will gradually develop stronger and more effective institutions behind the wall of international norms. An increasingly effective, responsive bureaucracy and educational system will further consolidate states as citizens have less reason to reject the state and more reason to support and participate in the state.
Additionally, from a military point of view, the advent of industrialization and modern technology have virtually eliminated the advantages smaller, more aggressive, and often tribal societies have had over settled societies, as settled societies can produce the demographics, food and weapons that allow massive armies equipped with guns and tanks to be transported via railroads and automobiles to a warzone. In such a situation, only well-organized states of similar sizes can seriously threaten the existence of other states.
The best approach to understanding the problem of the weak state in South Asia involves a systemic level approach that clearly situates the causes of the subcontinent’s weak institutions in the history of international politics. The interaction in South Asia between foreign empires and native states prevented the consolidation of either type of state and the institutions that went along with a stable, long term existence. To use a term coined by Thomas Hobbes, the Leviathan- the state that had total administrative control over its territory at all levels- did not emerge in South Asia. Furthermore, because of geographic factors, the nature of war in the region, and the fact that both types of states came from different traditions, the Indic and Turkic traditions, it was impossible for a stable international system with a set of shared norms regarding sovereignty to emerge in a region prone to repeated incursions. As a result, South Asia had an unstable international system and developed weak states whose short lives cut short the long term institutional development needed for the establishment of successful strong states.
Appendix: Map of the Main Turkic States of Eurasia in the 17th Century
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