THE British came to the subcontinent with the mindset of introducing the culture of state governance by law in a land where governance by arbitrary ruling had prevailed for centuries. When they could not obtain the desired results through a culture of law that worked effectively in Britain, they developed a mix of the two ruling cultures. This was done by creating a powerful civil service at the district level, equivalent to the mansabdars of the Mughal / Timurid empire, along with a zamindar system, while creating space for public representation and aspirations of the people.

After independence in 1947, the civil service again came under strong pressure through the revival of the traditional culture of arbitrary powers sought by the political class. The postings and transfers of civil servants by the political forces promoted corruption and deterioration of the civil services. This dimension of post-colonial governance is explored extensively in Old World Empires: Cultures of Power and Governance in Eurasia by Ilhan Niaz.

Niaz begins his study by establishing two universal premises of state governance and their evolution. One, the culture of continental bureaucratic state as exemplified by the arbitrary exercise of power by individual rulers or families; and two, the culture of state governance by law, where law dominates the behaviour of the rulers.

Old World Empires is a fascinating attempt to acquire insight into the causes of the rise and fall of rulers in a vast array of diverse societies. It is fascinating not because of any new revelations, but because it highlights the common factors that determine the fate of empires in Europe and Asia in an engaging and analytical manner. Niaz writes: “It is pertinent to introduce the two major traditions of the state that evolved in Eurasia, one is the continental bureaucratic state, or continental bureaucratic empire, and the other is the state of laws. The continental bureaucratic state is a complex of administrative hierarchies that culminate in a master or sovereign … the basic principle of the continental bureaucratic state is that the territory and the people it governs are the property of the ruler. The state of laws in many ways is the opposite of the continental bureaucratic state. In a state of law, the ruler is not the universal proprietor and there is no powerful hierarchy of personal servants that can act as sub-sovereign who are dependent on the ruler’s whims.”

Niaz delves deeply into the evolution of empires and their respective cultures in the subcontinent, beginning from the Mauryan and Gupta Empires (320 BC to 500 AD), through Delhi Sultanate, Timurid Empire and down to the British Empire, followed by the analysis of post-Partition Indian and Pakistani cultures of power and governance. The political, economic, social, religious and cultural development of India after 1947 is very thoroughly discussed and helps in understanding the political culture of the country, making for an informative read.

Similarly, Niaz looks at ancient Chinese rulers and their civil service state, the revolution led by Mao Tse-tung, the post-Mao era and then the rise of China as an economic power.

The rise, fall and rebirth of the Persian culture of governance is also discussed in detail and conclusions drawn. Niaz studies Persian influence on the subcontinental culture of governance through its language — Farsi — and conventions which began with the dominance of Zoroastrianism and ultimately Islam.

Niaz looks at the European order starting from the Greeks, moving to the Roman Empire and then to the present day Eurozone. The rise and fall of the Ottoman Empire is also discussed with its implications on the modern Turkish state. This is followed by the origins and legacy of Russian autocracy where Mongol and Byzantine dominance had the deepest influence.

The emergence and crisis of the Japanese “State of Harmony” is chronicled for its strengths, weaknesses and lessons. And last but not the least, the state of laws and Britain’s culture of power and governance is narrated in their historical perspective. Both these empires, the British and the Japanese, in the author’s opinion, evolved into unique modern cultures of governance.

Fifteen maps accompany the text to illustrate the geographic span of the empires discussed. Niaz, who teaches history at Quaid-i-Azam University, Islamabad, is also the author of The Culture of Power and Governance of Pakistan and An Inquiry into the Culture of Power of the Subcontinent. Any serious Pakistani politician who aspires to become a statesman should start his quest by studying this monumental and highly readable historical survey of political power and governance.

Old World Empires: Cultures of Power and Governance in Eurasia


By Ilhan Niaz

Oxford University Press, Karachi

ISBN 978-0-19-940145-1