Mughal empire and the making of a region: Locating South Asia in early modern international order

The Taj Mahal was commissioned by Shah Jahan in 1631, to be built in the memory of his wife Mumtaz Mahal,

Content from the Brookings Institution India Center is now archived. After seven years of an impactful partnership, as of September 11, 2020, Brookings India is now the Centre for Social and Economic Progress, an independent public policy institution based in India.

Editor's note:

Sambandh Scholars Speak is a series of blog posts that feature evidence-based research on South Asia with a focus on regional studies and cross-border connectivity. The series engages with authors of recent books, articles, and reports on India and its neighbouring countries.

In this edition, Sofia Shehana Basheer interviews Dr. Manjeet S. Pardesi on his recent work on South Asian international history. The paper titled “Mughal Hegemony and the Emergence of South Asia as a “Region” for Regional Order-building” was published in the European Journal of International Relations, Vol. 25(1) in 2019.

Regions have become a focal point in the study of international relations since the Cold War. In this paper, Dr. Manjeet Pardesi tracks the emergence of South Asia as a region to the practices under the Mughal state. By bringing Asian perspectives to the scholarship of early modern international history, the paper counters the belief that ‘South Asia’ emerged as a product of colonization and decolonization and locates the process to the Mughal system, thus opening new debates into the origin and crystallization of “regions”.

Dr. Pardesi’s argument relies on the examination of various aspects of the Mughal rule that produced a hierarchical order in South Asia that was embedded and emulated in the later histories of the region.

  1. Your recent article[1] locates South Asia’s emergence as a region under the Mughal rule. What implications does it have on our understanding of South Asia’s role in the global order after the 16th century? 

There were three “international systems” in early modern Eurasia (~1500—1750): Europe, East Asia, and Islamicate Asia. My articles in Security Studies and the European Journal of International Relations focused on the Mughal Empire in Islamicate Asia in an attempt to contribute to International Relations (IR) theory. I argued that the Mughals had established a hierarchical regional order in South Asia, and that it was co-constituted with the “deep rules” and practices of warfare, great power management, diplomacy, and political economy.

At the same time, the Mughals dealt with the two other major powers of the Islamicate world (the Safavid and Ottoman Empires) as equals (or peers) even as they were engaged in the status competition. By contrast, the Mughals considered all other polities (whether in South Asia or beyond) as “lesser” entities. At least one important reason behind such Mughal attitudes was related to the fact that the Mughal economy was one of the two largest economies of the early modern world (with Ming-Qing China being the other).

While the Mughals consciously emulated some of the state-making practices of the Safavids and the Ottomans, they enjoyed structural trade surpluses with them (and with the rest of the Islamicate world). However, Islamicate Asia was not Mughal-centric (unlike East Asia that was Sinocentric) because the Ottomans and the Safavids continued to remain major empires (or peers in the Mughal worldview).

Along with Mughal practices of warfare, diplomacy, and great power management, commerce transformed South Asia into a cohesive geopolitical unit or “region.

At the same time, the Mughal Empire’s status as the dominant land power in South Asia as well as its structural trade surplus with the European powers (in the Indian Ocean) meant that the Mughals did not consider them as peers or equals.

In other words, I demonstrate that in the early modern period, there existed an asymmetric relationship between the Mughals and the Europeans in favor of the former. Another significant implication of my work is that South Asia’s post-Mughal rulers, the British, learned about the geopolitics of the region – including the strategic contours of the region – after consciously studying Mughal statecraft.

The British order in South Asia was built upon Mughal foundations. In fact, the British even emulated certain Mughal practices. For example, analogous to the Mughal quest to limit (and sever) the “extra-regional” geopolitical influence of the Ottomans and Safavids from South Asia, the British also tried to limit Russian and French influence in the subcontinent.

2. Given today’s politically partitioned South Asia, what do you think about the present and the future of regional integration in South Asia? 

As a home to multiple polities, contemporary South Asia is similar to early modern South Asia. For most of the pre-Mughal millennium, different South Asian polities were geopolitically and economically oriented towards different parts of the Afro-Eurasian world (rather than towards each other).

While the Mughals may have been the largest of such polities in early modern South Asia, they had to share the geopolitical space with the Deccani Sultanates (like Bijapur and Golconda), and with other smaller entities even after the conquest of the Deccani Sultanates. Nevertheless, buoyed by the Mughal economy, South Asia did develop very close economic interconnections through overland and maritime trade, and through financial links.

Along with Mughal practices of warfare, diplomacy, and great power management, commerce transformed South Asia into a cohesive geopolitical unit or “region.” As such, there are no easy lessons to be drawn for contemporary South Asia as Mughal hegemony was an outcome of multiple factors including conflict. Furthermore, contemporary South Asia is one of the least “integrated” economic regions in the world.

However, an important implication of my argument is that “regions” do transform over time. China’s emergence as a major South Asian power today (economically and strategically) as well as India’s Look/Act East strategy and the idea of the “Indo-Pacific” being championed by Japan and the United States (and others) means that we need to remain open to the possibility that the “regional” unit of analysis may no longer be limited to “South Asia” as a “larger Asia” seems to be emerging (with interconnections on land and by sea).

Of course, none of this means that India should ignore its immediate neighbors in South Asia. However, it does mean that we need to pay more attention to processes that form (and transform) regions over time (if by “regions” we mean the sites of international order-building).

3. What do you think about cultural approaches in strategic conceptions of the region, for example, when India underlines “civilizational ties” based on religion, etc.?

Regions – as I conceptualise them – emerge out of the interaction between leaders’ cognitive-priors, the politico-military interaction capacity in the system, and strategic geography. (Economic power can transform politico-military interaction capacity, while technology can overcome the limits of geography). Of course, it is possible that leaders’ perceptions (or cognitive priors) are based on what they think of as shared cultural and civilizational ties.

However, I believe that unless backed by politico-military interactions (or sustained economic interactions), purely cultural-civilizational conceptualisations are unlikely to generate “regions” (that matter for order-building). For example, during the Cold War, Europe had two distinct regional orders – Western Europe (led by the United States) and Eastern Europe (led by the former Soviet Union) – even as the two Europes shared a common civilizational substratum.

Indeed, these twin orders in Europe were completely transformed as geopolitical/economic factors changed with the end of the Cold War. Finally, it is also important to remember that culture and civilization are very difficult to define. Furthermore, most cultures and civilizations do overlap and share attributes with neighboring cultures and civilizations (for example, like India itself does with Iran on the one hand and with Southeast Asia on the other).

4. One of your academic interests is to depart from the Eurocentric historical narratives of international relations to enrich the discipline with Asian experiences. How will this decentering impact our understanding of South Asia’s role in global history?

This initiative – often referred to as “Global IR” – is relatively new. For now, my research focuses on contributions to theory-development based on South Asia and Asia’s historical experiences. For example, in my papers above I tried to explain why the Mughal hierarchy in South Asia was conflict-prone even as other scholars have argued that Sinocentric hierarchy in East Asia was relatively peaceful. In other words, I tried to show that hierarchy can take different forms in practice as opposed to making specific points related to South Asia’s historical role in global history.

We need more theoretical and empirical scholarship on South Asia in different periods of global history, including comparisons across time and with different world regions, before we can make any specific claims. I am currently working on a paper on ancient India (~600 BCE – 300 CE) where I am trying to argue that the “international order” was distinct from both, “anarchic” balances of power (typically associated with Europe) and “hierarchies” of various types (whether Mughal or Sinic).

In other words, the international order in South Asia looked very different in different periods of South Asian history. Indeed, there may be periods when South Asia cannot be taken to be the default site of order-building (as in the pre-Mughal millennium or in the coming Indo-Pacific/“larger Asia”). Given the often-noted cliché of India as a diverse land, this diversity of international orders in Indian history may be one of India’s biggest contributions to IR theory.

While it is important to de-center Eurocentric narratives of IR, the aim is not to replace them with Indo-centric or Asia-centric narratives. Instead, the aim is to develop IR theory by drawing upon global histories, and to eventually contribute to polycentric narratives of global history.

About the expert: 

31Manjeet S. Pardesi is a Senior Lecturer in the Political Science and International Relations Programme and Asia Research Fellow at the Centre for Strategic Studies at Victoria University of Wellington.  He obtained his PhD in Political Science from Indiana University, Bloomington (IUB).  His research interests include international relations in global history, great power politics, strategic rivalries, Asian security, and Indian foreign policy.  He has an MSc in Strategic Studies from the Institute of Defence and Strategic Studies (now the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies or RSIS), Nanyang Technological University (NTU), Singapore.  He obtained his BEng (Electrical & Electronic) from NTU as well.  He is currently the Managing Editor of the journal Asian Security(June 2018—May 2021). He is a co-editor of The Oxford Handbook of India’s National Security(Oxford,2018) and India’s Military Modernization: Challenges and Prospects (Oxford, 2014).  His articles have appeared in European Journal of International Relations, Security Studies, Survival, Asian Security, Australian Journal of International Affairs, Commonwealth & Comparative Politics, International Studies Perspectives, Nonproliferation Review, Air & Space Power Journal(of the United States Air Force), The Fletcher Forum of World Affairs, World Policy Journal, India Review, Defense and Security Analysis, and in several edited book volumes.

Email: ([email protected])


[1]   Pardesi, M. S. (2019). Mughal hegemony and the emergence of South Asia as a “region” for regional order-building. European Journal of International Relations, 25(1), 276–301.