Aurangzeb, Putin, Realism and a Lesson from History

March 7, 2016
"Emperor Aurangzeb in Palaquin," painting made by Bhavanidas in the the early 18th century | The Met

How a medieval Indian emperor explains today’s ruler of Russia

Vladimir Putin is apparently an enigma, who plays chess when others play checkers, who deals with foreign policy and domestic policy just as smoothly and aggressively as a Judoka’s natural mix of brute force and finesse. His inner circle is closed and cocooned, no one is privy to his thought process, and western analysts repeatedly fail to anticipate his next move.

On superficial observation, all of the above seems true. Putin is a man who has returned the topic of Russia to Western foreign policy analysis and debate which even three years ago was mostly about Islamic Terrorism and China. Some Realist International relations researchers (including yours truly) would tend to argue, that from a strictly foreign policy perspective, Russia is a textbook case of “security dilemma.” Russia is a newly revanchist regional power and is surrounded by smaller former Soviet states that are threatened by this process, thereby inviting other hegemons and powers to counter Russia. This in turn is threatening Russia, even further instigating it to lash out and militarize every potential conflict. In short, this is a chain reaction and overall, in the present international system, although chances of open conflict between an established bloc like NATO and a rising regional hegemon like Russia are still extremely low, there is a possibility that this adversarial relationship would continue in other asymmetric ways. Other analysts have also tried to explain contemporary Russia from the lens of a societal struggle. It is claimed that Russia is an authoritarian semi-dictatorial state where Vladimir Putin is increasingly isolated in his select coterie of like-minded yes-men, and is increasingly losing control of understanding the reality. Others would suggest Russia is a sophisticated kleptocracy.

On closer scrutiny, however, Putin is similar to an old 17th century Indian Mughal emperor. Putin’s ascension, actions, judgment, rhetoric, psychological profile, everything seems eerily familiar with Aurangzeb, the last of the Greater Mughals. It is my hypothesis that an analysis of Putin’s future course and subsequent Russian destiny can also be fathomed, if we prudently study Aurangzeb further.

Western academia can be forgiven for not drawing this historical similarity. Medieval Indian kingdoms falls under hardcore area studies, and are not paid much attention among Western mainstream politics/international-relations scholarship. Indian history and politics starts from the British empire, with the advent of modern Indian state after the Bengal Renaissance, in the present territorial avatar as we know today. The only Indian ancient Political Realist who is mentioned occasionally is Kautilya (Stephen Walt, Origin of Alliance). While we find comparativist studies of modern European states with Middle Kingdom of Qing dynasty or Meiji restoration in Japan, Medieval India is essentially a subject of history and theology and not Politics.

But Putin’s reign, has got more in common with Aurangzeb, than any other parallels, and if one needs to understand what we need to be prepared for, Post-Putin, we need to understand the sudden severe disintegration of the Mughal Empire and the British colonization of India within fifty years of the death of Aurangzeb.


The last great Mughals

So, who was this man? Aurangzeb was the son of Shah Jahan, the second last of the Great Mughals. Shah Jahan was perhaps another famous emperor, who is lesser known in the West than his creation, the Taj Mahal. In fact Taj Mahal was named after Aurangzeb’s mother, Mumtaz Mahal one of the beauties of her day. Born in 1608, Aurangzeb was the fourth son of Shah Jahan, and was not eligible for the Mughal throne. The Mughal empire during his time stretched from the Balkh province in the Afghan-Uzbek-Iranian border to present day Java. Aurangzeb, or Alamgir, was a pious reserved man, who was not an academic unlike his three other brothers, including Darah Shikoh, a scholar of Sufi Persian noted even in Iran.

Aurangzeb married a princess of Safavid dynasty from Iran, probably a ploy to seal off his western border from potential Iranian aggression. Legend has it, Aurangzeb once faced off a mad elephant alone, with a lance. Impressed by his bravery, Shah Jahan posted him as a head of a conquering force to quell rebellions in Southern India, where Aurangzeb brutally cracked down, which was a glimpse of his days to come. During the last days of a frail Shah Jahan, all four brothers marched to Delhi from different sides. In the resulting civil war, Aurangzeb defeated them all, and then assassinated two, while one fled to Arakan, present day Burma, and was later killed.

It was what comes after Aurangzeb was enthroned that is fascinating. He promptly established a stringent version of Islamic law, something that was completely out of character of the Mughal dynasty which, although Islamic, was impressively secular. The Mughals even allowed inter-marriage, and had special rights for transsexuals (Hijras). All that was stopped by homegrown Conservatism, as Aurangzeb took upon himself the title of defender of the faithful. There has been scholarship which has speculated that Aurangzeb was a bit unhinged, not unlike how some Western leaders talk about Putin. However, it will still be fair to say, Aurangzeb looked at himself as some sort of legendary defining hero, a millennial man, who was born with a noble task to empower his dynasty and empire by its impressive might.

He was also an expansionist when it came to foreign policy, as well as a brutal administrator when it came to internal dissent. His expansion campaigns included reaching up to Ceylon’s shores. He twice pummeled the British East India Company, once in the West Arabian Sea and once in the South West. The English traders had to genuflect and beg for mercy, as well as pay a large indemnity. The French traders begged Aurangzeb for protection. Even the Ottoman empire wanted Aurangzeb to come to their aid, when they were attacked by the Austrian Habsburgs. Even when his economy was crumbling, he was known and sought for as a strong military hegemon. On the domestic front, he brutally crushed one after the other rebellions in North India, before finally being bogged down by the rising Maratha guerrilla tactical warfare in the west, and the Sikhs in the north. His overconfidence stretched his imperial army thin, his rough treatment of his Hindu subjects resulted in the Indian Hindu Rajput lords refusing to fight for him, and they in fact sabotaged some of his campaigns, weakening his national unity which was at its peak just a hundred years prior to him, during the reign of Emperor Akbar. He assassinated most of his capable commanders in fear that they might rebel against him, and killed his opponents, which resulted in a top-heavy administration, devoid of any real military or academic talent, or any new outlook when it came to taxes, military strategy, or industry.

Aurangzeb died in 1707, a broken man, having failed to defeat the rising Hindu insurgency in southern India, which now threatened northern and eastern India as well. Though the empire was geographically at its largest, economically it was half of what it was during Shah Jahan. Within fifty years, the Persian Nadir Shah invaded India, and pillaged and plundered through Delhi, stealing the Peacock Throne, and the Kohinoor diamond, which is now placed in the English crown. After his death, there were seven different emperors over the span of forty years, Southern India broken off under the Marathas, the east of India and Calcutta under the Nawabs and other feudal lords, and the Hyderabad under the Nizams.

In 1757, English East India company took advantage of the chaos and defeated the Nawab Siraj Ud Daulah in Plassey, starting what would then go on to be the greatest, largest and mightiest modern empire ever in strict military and economic terms. By 1857, one hundred years from the battle of Plassey, 140 years from Aurangzeb’s death, the Mughal empire ceased to exist, as the British killed the last of the Mughals after a failed mutiny.


The parallels with Putin

So why this history lesson? Because the parallels we see are frighteningly similar. And the policy implications are equally necessary. Vladimir Putin came to power as a starry eyed man, and it is debatable how much he was actually friendly to the west, but it is generally accepted both by realists and liberals that he was the first leader to bandwagon with the West in the war on terror. Now, Realists say this was just a tactical alignment to hijack the rhetoric of the War on Terror in order to crack down on internal dissent, while some Western liberals claim the motive was to gain global economic recognition by, for instance, becoming a member of the World Trade Organization and the G8.

Over time, Putin has started to surround himself in an ever-smaller echo chamber, as his opponents are assassinated, Russian scholars and bankers flee the country, and money is wasted on bunk pseudo-scientific research. He portrays himself as a vanguard of Christian civilizational conservatism and, it could be fair to argue, he even believes some of his own lies, which is what happens to old dictators. His crackdown on gay right movements and Russian liberals has created a climate of societal rage, where the Russian society is in a confused limbo. On one hand, they are proud, and dazed by this new found military adventurism, on the other hand, they are divided among sectarian and religious lines, extremely hurting under economic downturn, questioning and seething with rage regarding the military deployments, without proper authorization, with body bags now returning from faraway distant lands. Russia is a divided society, and the Russian administration is an extreme top-heavy organization, with no real civil society anymore, no independent scholarship, no clear succession process, an over stretched military and extreme economic austerity, not to mention troubles in the Caucasus and Chechnya.

What could be a policy prescription then?

Obviously unlike the British Raj in India, United States or NATO will not conquer and occupy Russia and anyone who believes that, whether a Westerner or a Russian conspiracy theorist, needs to get an urgent appointment for the nearest psychiatrist and stop watching Russian state media. However, there are still things that can and should be done.

If history has taught us one thing about leaders, it is that inevitably after one strong leader, especially one who believes in historical destiny that he is fulfilling, comes utter disintegration. Russia is also going on a course of self-destruction, and the Realist in me would instinctively suggest to pay attention to the words of Napoleon — if an enemy is hell bent on destroying itself, it is prudent not to stop the momentum.

However, this is a changed world, not the stable binary of the Cold War. Humanity cannot afford a country like Russia to eventually disintegrate, and the chances of someone more nationalistic, more revanchist than Putin should send a shiver down the spine of the most stoic of western IR theorists. Policy makers should therefore try to identify stable sources of power in a post Putin scenario: leadership that is modern and, if not an Atlanticist, at least comparatively liberal like Medvedev. Western leaders should also constantly keep engaging with Putin and not shut him off; further pressure might actually destabilize Russia and unleash forces beyond our control, including Russian nationalists, communists and Islamists. Western human intelligence (HUMINT) should be increased to penetrate Russian society, feel the nerve, and increase our ground knowledge: something which is still possible with student exchanges and other means, unlike during the Cold War. Russian scholarship and expertise, which has receded since the collapse of the Soviet Union, should be studied again and funded. Finally, Western leadership should be ready materially and militarily to help the Russian people should something terrible happen, and should Russia look like it is about to collapse and disintegrate, post-Putin, into a humanitarian crisis.

Sumantra Maitra is a Doctoral researcher of Russian Foreign Policy, at the University of Nottingham, UK. He can be found on Twitter, @MrMaitra.