The First Neo-Cons and "The Last Mughal"

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[This show will record at 4:00 pm Eastern to accomodate William Dalrymple's schedule.]

For, as anyone who has ever studied the story of the rise of the British in India will know well, there is nothing new about the neo-cons. The old game of regime change – of installing puppet regimes, propped up by the west for its own political and economic ends – is one that the British had well mastered by the late 18th century.

William Dalrymple, “The last Mughal and a clash of civilizations”, The New Statesman, 16 Oct 2006

The Sepoy Mutiny of 1857 — an uprising of about 130,000 Indian troops who for a summer took Delhi against their British masters — was the gruesome nightmare of British imperialism. It was a firebell in the night that the Kipling generation was too young to hear. Horrific vengeance by the British marked the start of Victorian India, but also the beginning of the Empire’s century-long decline and dissolution.

William Dalrymple, the Scots historian who’s “gone native” in Delhi and written brilliantly about Delhi, City of Djinns, and its English denizens in the Raj, White Mughals, has rewritten the story of the Sepoy Mutiny from the largely untapped Indian National Archive. It brings the perspective of innumerable private and individual tragedies to one of the critical upheavals of modern history. For American readers in 2007, Dalrymple’s fresh telling of 1857 finds a startling parallelism in the “clash of civilizations” thinking that paved our way into Iraq and the British attitudes that had hardened through the 19th Century in a toxic brew of racism, cultural contempt and Christian evangelicalism.

Although it had many causes and reflected many deeply held political and economic grievances – particularly the feeling that the heathen foreigners were interfering in the most intimate way with a part of the world to which they were entirely alien – the uprising was articulated as a war of religion, and especially as a defensive action against the rapid inroads that missionaries, Christian schools and Christian ideas were making in India, combined with a more generalised fight for freedom from occupation and western interference.

… as we have seen in our own time, nothing so easily radicalises a people against us, or undermines the moderate aspect of Islam, as aggressive western intrusion in the east: the histories of Islamic fundamentalism and western imperialism have often been closely, and dangerously, intertwined. In a curious but very concrete way, the extremists and fundamentalists of both faiths have needed each other to reinforce each other’s prejudices and hatreds. The venom of one provides the lifeblood of the other.

William Dalrymple, “The last Mughal and a clash of civilizations”, The New Statesman, 16 Oct 2006

There are clear lessons here, as Dalrymple says. I am at the half-way point in his book, racing through it with the encouragement of reviews and commentaries in, for example, the indispensable 3 Quarks Daily and The Guardian.

I still hear in the back of our collective consciousness, since 9.11, the voice of another Scots historian Niall Ferguson, urging Americans to come out of the closet and own up to our Empire, to take up — believe it or not — The White Man’s Burden. Dalrymple digs deeper, almost too late, into the thinking behind the impulse, and the price.

William Dalrymple

Author, The Last Mughal, City of Djinns, and White Mughals

Ram Manikkalingam

Visiting Professor of Political Science, Universiteit van Amsterdam

Contributor (every fourth Monday), 3quarksdaily

Senior Advisor to the former president of Sri Lanka on the Peace Process with the Tamil Tigers

Manan Ahmed

Doctoral candidate in South Asian Languages and Civilizations, University of Chicago

Blogger, Chapati Mystery and Cliopatria


41 thoughts on “The First Neo-Cons and "The Last Mughal"

  1. I can’t wait for this, but still hope we get some time to read the book first.

    On the neocon question, I highly recommend Francis Fukuyama’s book “America at the Crossroads,” recently released in paper. The opening chapters in particular provide a nice overview of the origins of neoconservative thought and how the Iraq war in fact betrayed the principles of the founding neoconservatives. Whatever Fukuyama’s allegiances were once upon a time, he’s become embittered.

    An example: The Bush administration and its neoconservative supporters vastly overestimated the ability of America’s conventional military power to achieve the political ends they sought in the Middle East, particularly the goal of bringing about broad-ranging political transformation toward democracy. The United States today spends approximately as much as the rest of the world combined on its military establishment. Yet it is worth pondering why it is that after nearly four years of effort, thousands of American lives lost, and perhaps half a trillion dollars of outlays, the United States has not succeeded in pacifying a small country of some 24 million people, much less in leading it to anything that looks remotely like a successful democracy.”

  2. The lore surrounding 1857 is that the whole thing started because of cartridge casings on the new Enfield ammunition. According to the story, the casings were made of rendered cow and pig fat. Back in those days, one had to remove the casings to load the ammo. The fastest, and military standard way to do this was to bite them off and spit them. So the Indian troops were ordered to do this while training with the new rifles. But no way in hell would they put pig and cow fat in their mouths! The first man to refuse was shot. And the revolt spread from there. This was no small revolt either. At one point, most historians agree, the entire war came down to a single telegraph cable, which, if cut a few seconds earlier, would have lead to a British defeat, and a completely different world than the one we see today.

    The story of the rifle casings is used to demonstrate both the ignorance and arrogance of the British in India. They made these new casings with no regard to the fact that they would have to be used by Indians. Keep in mind, also, India was not a part of the British empire at this point, it was being controlled by the East India Company, a corporation. It only became a part of the Empire after 1857. This is the first example of “United Fruit” type colonization. i.e. a government stepping in to interfere in foreign politics to protect an irresponsible corporation from the righteous anger of ‘the natives.’

    This was indeed a major turning point in Geopolitics. England could no longer just sit back and passively make money off of India with no responsibility. England’s official colonization of India following 1857 can be seen as the beginning of the entire colonial age in Europe. Did the whole thing really start because of rifle casings? Are there any similar situations in our current involvement in the middle-east? Are we yet to see our “Enfield” moment of cultural stupidity which forces us to become far more involved than we had ever wanted to be? As with 1857, will it be a corporation which forces us to the breaking point? If so, which one? Halliburton, Becktell? Coke? Do we see any modern equivalents to the EIC?

    By the way. I’m really happy you’re doing this show. I’ve always been very interested in 1857 as an often overlooked turning-point in global history. Anyone who tosses around terms like ‘corporate-capitalism’, ‘neo-colonialism’, or ‘corporate-welfare imperialism’ should study 1857 first.

  3. It’s really just a mark of our white racism and Eurocentrism that we hold British imperialism up as an example of the arrogance of conquerors. The Indian subcontinent had seen plenty of violence, conquest, plunder and arrogance before the British arrived, much of it crueler than what the British did. But we don’t consider that history to be morally instructive because it was Muslims conquering Hindus or brown people committing acts of cruelty against other brown people. Apparently the brown-skinned and non-Christians are still considered second-class people even when it comes to being a persuasive moral example of anything. It reminds me of when I was in Japan and billboard and magazine ads often featured European models. Apparently whether you’re selling perfume, baskeball sneakers or historical moral lessons, white people still have more credibility.

  4. Re ” Yet it is worth pondering why it is that after nearly four years of effort, thousands of American lives lost, and perhaps half a trillion dollars of outlays, the United States has not succeeded in pacifying a small country of some 24 million people, much less in leading it to anything that looks remotely like a successful democracy…”-

    It DOES appear that we have managed to rid Iraq of a good part of their middle-class, though… Nearly all the refugees (perhaps surpassing 2 million souls) were people with the means to leave.

    The timeline for events in India is not a good omen, either- over 90 years from this “rebellion” to nation-hood…

    plnelson’s point is well-taken- and, to expand it further, perhaps part of the “problem” is that “white people” don’t know where the heck they’re FROM! Does “Indo-european language group” ring a bell? Hello! ^..^

  5. …but let us not forget that there are subcomponents within the constructs of the ‘east’ and the ‘west.’ after all, why did the punjabi sikhs stay loyal to the british, by and large? perhaps it had to do with their lack of enthusiasm for a rebellion in the name of the mughal emperor, whose forebears had persecuted their religion. why did the muslim league cooperate with the british during world war ii while congress sat out? perhaps because the leaders of the muslim league did not feel that their interests were the same as the congress party’s. similarly, the upper caste sepoys protested many a time against the enrollment of lower caste soldiers in their armies.

    life is complicated.

  6. life is complicated.

    Indeed . . . The story of the rifle casings is used to demonstrate both the ignorance and arrogance of the British in India.

    This could be recast as the conflict between two equally irrational ideas – The British possessing a religiously-driven irrational belief that they had a God-given mandate to rule Indians and the Indians possessing a religiously-driven irrational belief that tasting fat from certain (or any) animals had some cosmic significance. Seen in these terms it becomes a conflict between two groups of religious crazies – not unlike the conflict between Sunnis and Shiites in Iraq today. It’s a game that was played there before – Muslim armies have swept across the south-Asia subcontinent for centuries.

    There’s a certain irony in the growing economic strength of India today. It is unlikely that in the absence of British occupation and political and commercial institutions that resulted, India would be the (more or less) unified democracy they are today, and possessed of a 9% annual GDP growth rate. Recently an Indian company bought the UK’s last steel firm, and India’s companies are everywhere in the ascendency. Meanwhile the UK slowly devolves into nothing more than Ye Olde England, a geopolitical poodle accompanying the US on its (mis-)adventures, whining plaintively for the return of their sailors from the Iranians, and sleeping at its master’s feet at the end of the day dreaming of (long-) past glories.

  7. A very interesting question”how can one not take sides” Tich Naht Hahn by not taking sides in the Viet Nam war was banned both by the South and the North.

    He took the side of Peace. How can we not build peace if not by crossing enemy lines.

  8. I’m listening to today’s program via in real time; howerver, the third part was a repeat of the second, with the pig/beef fat used to grease the rifled barrels. If I check the archives tomorrow will I get to listen to the mising third of the program?

  9. would it not behoove us to concentrate on the most successful examples

    of harmony between race and in particular religion – for example christianity and islam – that have

    occurred in the past, find out how this happened, and see if we can apply the

    same motivations today?

    i have heard that a meeting occurred between the pope and mohammed while

    mohammed was still alive, in mecca. the result of this meeting was

    peace and harmony between the two religions for about 1000 years.

    it’s an interesting story – apparently mohammed had written the pope a letter

    saying ‘i think you should change your religion to mine’, and the meeting

    was more than likely the pope’s legitimate fear of competition in a

    business sense.

    this is referenced by a book named ‘the idiot’s guide to islam’.

    also ref for confirmation – it was during his

    conversation with Dave Emory that i heard of this reference.

  10. It is important to remember the past, to dig and find the truth about the past. I look forward to reading this book. There are many legends in the Indian oral tradion which come from the times of 1857 handed down from the people of India. There is the English history, which tells half a story. I am hungry for the truth. I hadn’t heard of this story until 6 months ago when my neighbor gave me a book about Lakshmibai. I am embarrassed that I knew nothing about the Sepoy Rebellion…

  11. Dalrymple mentions Jhumpa Lahiri as one of the well-known Indian writers who write in English. He may, however, want to note that Jhumpa Lahiri is not, by any means, an Indian writer. Admittedly, immigration juxtaposed with familial and cultural heritage makes these definitions very complex. However, unlike other diaspora writers such as Salman Rushdie, Amitav Ghosh and Rohinton Mistry, Lahiri was not born or raised in India; and more importantly, her literature is not about India.

  12. John Andrew: Yes, the mp3 link above is a full, correct version of the show. We’d recorded early because of Dalrymple’s schedule, and apparently there were problems with the CD of the show when WGBH played it at 7:00 pm Eastern. Our sincere apologies!

  13. i have heard that a meeting occurred between the pope and mohammed while

    mohammed was still alive, in mecca. the result of this meeting was

    peace and harmony between the two religions for about 1000 years.

    Normally I try to exhibit some modicum of respect for the other posters on ROS, even when I disagree with them, but I really have to ask what you’re smoking.

    More to the point what “1000 years of peace and harmony” are you referring to?

    Do the Crusades ring a bell? How about the Ottoman invasions of Europe? How about the conquest of Spain by the Moors and their subsequent eviction 700 years later? Good grief.

  14. muhammad @ 570 ad prophet from 612, died 633

    of the contemporary popes there does not seem to be a mention of this monumental meeting in the catholic encyclopedia. interestingly enough though the pope @ muhammad’s death Honorius I had been bishop of alexandria and was branded a heretic.

    curious that the catholic encyclopedia indicts muhammad’s bio because of a lack of contemporary text.

    we do seem to have been banging heads from the start, muhammed smacked a few christians around himself.

  15. at any rate,

    el cid liberated spain fom moorish colonialism and destroyed priceless libraries in the process..libraries that may have contained the lost books of aristotle.

    the price paid for colonial ambition is a heavy one for everyone. with the bill to be be paid by many generations. people have enough trouble figuring out their own cultures and problems.

  16. “We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.”


    We flatter ourselves if we believe that thinking has much to do with it.

    Virtually all human societies have a religions, so whatever it is that induces people to irrationally believe things for which they have no objective evidence seems pretty universal or hard-wired. Likewise (typically young) males like to get together in groups and engage in violent or aggressive behavior, especially against the “others”. This has been true throughout all human history and across all kinds of different cultures, and among rich, poor, white, black, brown, etc. We can dress this behavior up in whatever political, religious, economic or other clothes we like, and call them armies, gangs, mobs, police, warriors, etc, but it’s a remarkably resilient trait in our species (not to mention some other primate species).

    In light of this it’s not clear that the “kind of thinking” we do really has much bearing on our problems. My undergrad major was neurophysiology so I got to study lots of psychology. In clinical psychology there is a practice called CBT – Cognitive Behavioral Therapy which attempts to change the way people think about themselves and their lives. It has proven very effective for certain kinds of anxiety and depression. But other forms of mental illness such as schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, which have biological roots, do not respond much to CBT, and usually require drugs or other more aggressive intervention to manage.

    There simply IS no science of human behaviour (sociology, social psychology, etc) robust enough to give us confidence that a geopolitical version of CBT would be able to contain the violent, irrational impulses characterized by things like the invasion or Iraq, the conquest of India, or the carnage we see today among the Iraqis.

  17. pln, I’m glad your back I enjoy your posts. I don’t always agree but they are fun to read. I do tend to agree with your last post.

  18. it would be preferrable if we did more thinking and less believing.

    I’d love to see your evidence for that. As an engineer with a good science background, and no religious beliefs I’m obviously inclined toward the “thinking” side of the discussion.

    But my thinking does not persuade me that you are correct. In the 21st century there is more rationalism than at any time in human history but I don’t see any evidence that we are less violent. A great deal of our thinking is devoted to developing better methods of hurting or prevailing over those groups of people we don’t like, and coming up with more sophisticated rationales for doing so.

    Furthermore, from a scientific standpoint we are what we are. That is to say, strong irrational passions and violent impulses seem to be a hallmark of our species. Hoping that we will become some other way seems to be an instance of the sort of thinking known as “wishful”.

  19. Yes indeed, an interesting article by Stephen Pinker at calls into question the assumption that many of us have that the world is more brutal and violent today than it was in days of yore. It’s a good read. Down with the (idea of the) noble savage!

  20. Yes indeed, an interesting article by Stephen Pinker at calls into question the assumption that many of us have that the world is more brutal and violent today than it was in days of yore.

    Pinker’s comments attack the idea that, “humans are peaceable by nature and corrupted by modern institutions”. But that’s a straw man I don’t know anyone who believes that.

    FWIW, I think humans are violent by nature and while modern institutions may manage to impose a thin veneer over such traits, when strong social controls are lifted or break down we get Iraq, Somalia, Yugoslavia, etc. This is essentially the “Lord of the Flies” thesis.

    I don’t doubt that the modern state can impose controls on violent behavior, or that modern economies can create enough alternative forms of stimulation and entertainment, enough rewards for peaceful behavior, and enough overall wealth so people don’t have to compete as much for scarce resources, in order to tamp down on people’s violent tendencies. But it’s artificial and takes a tremendous amount of effort and maintenance to sustain.

    I also question Pinker’s claim that we are much less cruel. There are a huge number of videos on the web showing beheadings and firefights and other nasty stuff. And there’s an epidemic of sport attacks on the homeless . . .

    I think the main thing that’s changed is that public dispalys of such cruelty are no longer fashionable. And even this is highly cultural. For example, the Spanish love their bullfighting even though such cruelty turns the stomachs of most of the rest of us.

    BTW a major technical flaw in Pinker’s data is that he compares battle death rates and homicides of the past to today. The problem is that today’s death rates would be dramatically higher were it not for our modern medicine technology.

  21. plnelson

    as we may be moving to a greater collective awareness as demonstrated here. my hope is that thinking is more subject to the scrutiny of public discourse. back to the stoa. rational thought can only occur in open public discourse in which all sides of the equation are considered and balanced…real growth, stewing away on your own is fine for some but probably not for most.

    look at ROS for example..don’t just casually say something that you can not defend. “very nice albert but SHOW YOUR WORK..-15 see me after class.”

    this is not a transmit only affair..fantastic..statements are scrutinized, responded to..the future of our species society? could be for better or worse..i’ll put my money on better.

  22. as far as less violent? tough one. define parameters.

    if it is per capita..violence is definetly down compared to most millenia..for example..we don’t need to carry swords anymore and most of us don’t wear our savings accounts in the form of jewelry for fast getaways.

    the population of the earth @ 1000 ad was @ 310 million…

    today it’s @ 6.5 billion…

    i can say with some certainty that i am more secure today than most people were back then…

    but then that’s a 1 in 6.5 billion opinion.

    europe has enjoyed more stability as of late than it has in its entire history.

    now have we become less NASTY to each other?..again the parameters need to be defined. genocidal behavior has been around for most of recorded history…

    are we more moral? most of us are more aware of certain things anyway. racial segregation et al, still around to be sure but it is less tolerated generally. although arabs and moslems are having a tough time of it right now.

    britain’s answer to its trade defecit with china..the introduction of probably lower than that country will ever stoop again..but we’ll have to see. will germany ever repeat its worst?

    rwanda..darfur? are these new? do they match the relative scale of the small pox epidemic deliberatly unleashed on indigenous americans?

    i see a more aware and socially conscious world emerging if we can only bring our gov’t in line.

    we do still have a long way to go in living up to our potential.

  23. europe has enjoyed more stability as of late than it has in its entire history.

    Sure, but look what it takes to do that: They’re consuming a HUGE portion of the earth’s resources to maintain the standard of living that keeps their lives from being nasty, brutish and short. In a sense they’re importing oil, other raw materials, and manufactured goods by exporting the poverty and social stresses that are resolved with violence. One of the reasons why we can’t make any progess in Darfur is because France is pursuing oil exploration in Sudan and doesn’t want to queer that deal. Much of Europe’s stability-giving wealth came from Africa, which has become one of the most hellish places on earth.

    Then there’s demographics : violence is a trait of young men – populations with lots of young men tend to be more violent, or they require stricter state control to prevent it. But Europe’s population pyramid is inverted, as a % of their total population they have fewer young men than almost anyone.

  24. plnelson:

    you are preaching to the choir on that one..

    i’ve been working for years on this stuff. don’t let china off the hook btw..they are the ones with the oil concessions that are encroaching on darfur…as for “exxon chad” it gets interesting.

    our lifestyle simply can not continue as is..and too many people don’t care.

    i was responding to your statement “I don’t see any evidence that we are less violent.” substitute hypocritical for violent and we grow closer in agreement.

    i do still, in spite of it all, hold out hope that once people’s eyes are opened, that they will change for the better.

  25. i borrow from myself on another thread..just look at the usa..

    perspective: us oil consumption (20.73 million bbl/day-2004 est.)

    global oil consumption – 80.1 million bbl/day (2003 est.)

    us population @ 298,444,215

    global population @ 6,525,170,264 (July 2006 est.)

    that’s @ 4.5% of the world’s population burning 25% of its oil. why are we we so misunderstood?…why do we need such a big military?

    average price of gasoline in canada 102.6 cents a litre..home of one of the world’s largest oil reserves (tar sands) @ 180 billion bbls barrels, second only to saudi arabia’s 264 billion bbls.

    in us dollars thats 87.30206 cents a liter or @ $3.30 a gallon

    average price of gasoline in usa..$2.38

    how do you account for this disparity? canada’s next door…imo we are behaving like armed addicts with our gluttenous consumer habits and the bills are coming due.

    on young demographics:

    iran has incredibly young demographics as well as high literacy and higher education levels…President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is not as popular as one might be led to believe..could get interesting.

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