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Empire as a Global Entity

Seema Alavi

By M. Athar Ali with a Preface by Irfan Habib
Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 2006, pp. 409, Rs. 695.00


Noted historian Athar Ali died in 1998. The only time I ever met him was at the Jawaharlal Nehru University in 1992 where he interviewed me for a job at the Center of Historical Studies. I had just returned from Cambridge with a brand new PhD degree, which had the stamp of his bete noire Professor C.A. Bayly. I was tense on seeing him as I thought that I would now have to answer for the academic ‘follies’ of Cambridge historians! I was pretty sure that I was not getting this job. I was surprised. Not only did Professor Ali engage me in a meaningful discussion on the politics and culture of the late Mughal society, but also selected me for the job.   My first and last impression of him as a historian willing to listen and engage with the developments in the outside world is only reinforced as I read this compendium of his writings. This book brings together Ali’s varied interests in a long and distinguished career: The Islamic expansion into India and the consolidation of Empires, the ideological underpinnings of the Mughal state, the location of religion in the evolving political culture of the times, the wide cultural embrace of the Empire that connected it to both eastern and western politico-economic processes, and a culturally nuanced understanding of its decline in the early 18th century. Ali’s writings from Aligarh, better known for its empirically rich contributions to the economic referents of Mughal rule, always came as a whiff of fresh air. Like his colleagues he never lost track of the salience of the powerful Mughal state that defined through its exploitative agrarian policies the nature of change in India. But he enriched this understanding by adding to it fresh cultural frills. As the argument got nuanced it also often tended to inadvertently de-center the state in the narrative. However, this was rarely acknowledged by Ali. Thus his major contribution on Mughal ruling classes (the nobility), systematized administrative institutions and political sovereignty at one level bring to our notice the sophisticated mechanisms of centralization of power in the hands of the monarch. Yet, he cautions that institutions like the nobility, jagir and mansabs also have the potential to create cracks in this edifice. He views the evolution of absolute political sovereignty as the Mughal way to balance out such unsavoury effects of systematization. Thus the Emperor according ...

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