RHI Seminar: Merciful Tyrants? Explaining Rebel Forgiveness and State Capacity in Mughal South Asia (1556-1707)

This month, we are excited to welcome Ms. Safya Morshed from the London School of Economics. The seminar will take place in room B0073 at the Leeuwenborch building from 16:00-17:15 on Thursday, June 9th .

Organised by Rural and Environmental History

Thu 9 June 2022 16:00 to 17:15

Venue Leeuwenborch, building number 201
Room B0073

The paper contributes to a growing literature on state capacity with reference to the early-modern Asian empires. The historiography of these states, and especially the Mughal empire of South Asia, has moved away from an image of unrestrained despotism towards that of a constrained state, but is yet to explore fully what these constraints were and what the state did to overcome these. Using a new dataset on conflicts in Mughal South Asia, and an analytical model, the paper shows how forgiving rebel leaders was used as a strategic tool to secure stability, in a setting where high information costs made intermediaries indispensable to the state. The paper also offers some comparison between Asian empires on the role of intermediaries in shaping state constraint and fiscal policies.

Several recent publications have highlighted the significant role of elites and tax intermediaries in managing the administrative capacity of government. A growing literature on administrative costs has argued that just as much as an overly predatory state can negatively affect the government’s ability to raise revenue, too little investment in coercion can also negatively impact state fiscal capacity. Avner Grief (2008), for instance, has challenged the credible commitment model to argue is it not constitutionalism that matters, but the balance of powers between the state and intermediaries should be where costs of violence are minimised. Alejandra Irigoin and Regina Grafe (2013) have also argued that whilst high coercion costs can inhibit economic development in some states, too little coercion capacity can inhibit tax revenue collection.

Where the North Western European experience has been studied more extensively, the nature of the Asian state has become somewhat of a paradox, where these states have been depicted as both unconstrained as well as weak. For instance, for the case of premodern China, Debin Ma and Jared Rubin (2019) have posited that high monitoring costs can force governments that cannot credibly commit to no confiscation to allow government officials to accept extra-legal taxation in order to convince them to work with the empire. In this paper, I use a new rebellion database constructed with contemporary histories to demonstrate the Mughal government forgave forty-three percent of rebels over the course of the period. I use statistical analysis and case-studies to demonstrate that rebel forgiveness can be explained by the administrative capacity of intermediaries, where rebels possessed abilities related to specific localities and ethnic groups that made them valuable to the state. This created a dynamic where the state was incentivised to forgive rebels by returning confiscated wealth, and where the rebels were able to return to the state with confidence of their safety from state retaliation. I show that following these policies allowed the state to command a strong and adaptable military force capable of withstanding larger military opponents, despite being internally constrained by the intermediaries’ bargaining power. The high bargaining power of elites in the Mughal state contrasts with management policies of the Chinese early modern empire, where intermediaries did not have the same bargaining power.