March 27, 2007

"Nothing so easily radicalises a people against us... as aggressive Western intrusion in the East."

The First Neo-Cons and "The Last Mughal"

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.

Guest List
William Dalrymple
author, The Last Mughal, City of Djinns, and White Mughals

Ram Manikkalingam
visiting professor of political science at Universiteit van Amsterdam, contributor to 3quarksdaily, and senior advisor to the former president of Sri Lanka on the Peace Process with the Tamil Tigers.
Manan Ahmed
assistant professor of history at Columbia, and blogger at Chapati Mystery and Cliopatria.

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