[Reader-list] William Dalrymple: Lessons from the British Raj (1857-2007)

Patrice Riemens patrice at xs4all.nl
Fri Aug 10 19:13:20 IST 2007

At the occasion of the 150th anniversary of the Indian Insurgency (sept 

Le Monde Diplomatique has an (actually several) english editions, and is 
worth following. Check the website.  This month, for instance, there is a 
path-breaking article by Jean Bricmont, where he argues that the disaster 
of the Left in Europe, cq the 'Global North', is that it is unable to 
accept that political progress now is in the Global South (e.g. South 
America), and that the economic model it defends - unsuccesfully - is an 
outworn Keynesian one based on (neo-)colonialist exploitation.

with permission from:

From: Le Monde diplomatique <english at mondediplo.net>
Date: 7 ao?t 2007 10:47
Subject: Lessons from the British Raj
To: Le Monde diplomatique <english at mondediplo.net>

   Le Monde diplomatique

   August 2007


                     Lessons from the British Raj

     Today West and East face each other uneasily across a divide
   that many see as religious war. Lessons can be learned from the
    mistakes of British imperial arrogance in India 150 years ago,
                     and its misplaced idealism.

                                               by William Dalrymple

     In early May 1857 - almost exactly 150 years ago - the
     British Empire found itself threatened by the largest and
     bloodiest anti-colonial revolt against any European empire
     anywhere in the world in the entire course of the
     19th century. There is much about the history of British
     imperial adventures in the East at this time, and the massive
     insurgency this provoked, which is strikingly and uneasily
     familiar to us today. There are also many lessons that can be
     learned from the mistakes that the imperial arrogance, as
     well as the misplaced idealism, of the British led them to

     The British had been trading in India, in the form of the
     East India Company, since the early 17th century. But this
     commercial relationship changed during the 18th century as
     the power of the Mughal Empire began to fade. To protect its
     trade, its rights to extract minerals, and its wider
     geopolitical interests, the company began to recruit local
     troops and conquer territory.

     Then at the end of the 18th century a new group of
     conservatives came into power, determined radically to expand
     British power: the Governor General, Lord Wellesely, the
     elder brother of the Duke of Wellington, called his new
     aggressive approach the Forward Policy. It was in effect a
     Project for the New British Century, as Wellesley made it
     clear he was determined to establish British dominance over
     all its European rivals - especially the French. He also
     firmly believed it was better pre-emptively to remove hostile
     Muslim regimes that presumed to resist the West's growing
     power. There were, as ever, many voices in the more rightwing
     sections of the press who supported this view. The puppet
     Muslim allies who effectively allowed the Empire to run their
     affairs could stay for the time being, but those governments
     that were intent on resisting the advance of the West were
     simply not to be tolerated any longer.

                     Against a `furious fanatic'

     Nor was there any doubt who would be the first to be
     targeted: a dictator whose family had usurped power in a
     military coup. According to British sources close to
     government he was "a cruel and relentless enemy", an
     "intolerant bigot", a "furious fanatic" who had "perpetually
     on his tongue the projects of Jihad". This dictator was also
     deemed to be an "oppressive and unjust ruler... [and a]
     perfidious negotiator".

     Wellesley had arrived in India in 1798 with specific
     instructions to effect regime change and replace Tipu Sultan
     of Mysore with a western-backed puppet. First, however,
     Wellesley had to justify a policy whose outcome had already
     been decided. Wellesley began to mobilise his forces:
     military, logistical but most importantly rhetorical, for to
     get agreement for an expensive and divisive war is never
     easy, and it is only by marshalling a body of apparently
     convincing evidence against your opponent that the
     belly-aching anti-imperialists at home - in this case the
     coterie that had gathered around Edmund Burke - could be shut

     It was with this in mind that Wellesley and his allies began
     a comprehensive campaign of vilification against Tipu,
     portraying him as a vicious and aggressive Muslim monster who
     planned to wipe the British off the map of India. This essay
     in imperial villain-making duly opened the way for a
     lucrative conquest and the installation of a more pliable
     regime which allowed the conquerors to give the impression
     they were handing the country back to its rightful owners
     while in reality maintaining firm western control.

     The British progressed from removing threatening Muslim
     rulers to annexing even the most pliant Islamic states. In
     February 1856 they marched into Avadh on the lame excuse that
     the Nawab was "excessively debauched".

     To support the annexation, a "dodgy dossier" was produced
     before parliament, so full of distortions and exaggerations
     that one British official who had been involved in the
     operation described the Parliamentary Blue Book on Oudh as "a
     fiction of official penmanship, [an] Oriental romance" that
     was refuted "by one simple and obstinate fact": that the
     conquered people of Avadh clearly "preferred the slandered
     regime" of the Nawab "to the grasping but rose-coloured
     government of the Company". In this way, by early 1857, the
     East India Company was directly ruling about two-thirds of
     the subcontinent.

                          Ruled and redeemed

     Many British officials who believed in the "forward" policy
     were also nursing plans to impose not just British laws and
     technology on India, but also British values. India would be
     not only ruled, but redeemed. Local laws which offended
     Christian sensibilities were abrogated: the burning of
     widows, for example, was banned. One of the Company
     directors, Charles Grant, spoke for many when he wrote of how
     he believed Providence had brought the British to India for a
     higher purpose: "Is it not necessary to conclude that our
     Asiatic territories were given to us, not merely that we draw
     a profit from them, but that we might diffuse among their
     inhabitants, long sunk in darkness, the light of Truth?"

     If the tracts of the missionaries reinforced Muslim fears,
     increasing opposition to British rule and creating a
     constituency for the rapidly multiplying jihadists determined
     to stop the rule of the kafir infidels, so the existence of
     "Wahhabi conspiracies" to resist the Christians strengthened
     the conviction of the evangelicals that a "strong attack" was
     needed to take on such "Muslim fanatics".

     The reaction to this steady crescendo of insensitivity came
     in 1857 with the Great Mutiny. Soon after dawn on 11 May
     1857, the Mughal Emperor Bahadur Shah Zafar was saying his
     morning prayers in his oratory overlooking the river Jumna,
     when he saw a cloud of dust rising from the far side of the
     river. Minutes later, he was able to see its cause: 300 East
     India Company cavalrymen charging wildly towards his palace.

     The troops had ridden overnight from Meerut, where they had
     turned their guns on their British officers, and had come to
     Delhi to ask the Emperor to bestow his blessing on their
     mutiny. Shortly afterwards, the sepoys entered Delhi,
     massacred every Christian man, woman and child they could
     find, and declared the 82-year-old emperor to be their
     leader. Later they stood in the Chandni Chowk, the main
     street of Delhi, and asked people: "Brothers: are you with
     those of the faith?" British men and women who had converted
     to Islam - and there were a surprising number of those in
     Delhi - were not hurt; but Indians who had converted to
     Christianity were cut down immediately. As a letter sent out
     by the rebels' leaders subsequently put it: "The English are
     people who overthrow all religions... As the English are the
     common enemy of both [Hindus and Muslims, we] should unite in
     their slaughter... By this alone will the lives and faiths of
     both be saved."

     Before long the insurgency had snowballed into the largest
     anti-colonial revolt against any European empire in the 19th
     century. Of the 139,000 sepoys of the Bengal army all but
     7,796 turned against their British masters. In many places
     the sepoys were supported by a widespread civilian rebellion.
     Atrocities abounded on both sides.

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

                           `Suicide ghazis'

     Although the great majority of the sepoys were Hindus, there
     were many echoes of the Islamic insurgencies the US fights
     today in Iraq and Afghanistan: in Delhi a flag of jihad was
     raised in the principal mosque, and many of the resistance
     fighters described themselves as mujahideen or jihadists.
     Indeed, by the end of the siege, after a significant
     proportion of the sepoys had melted away, the proportion of
     jihadists in the rebellion's storm centre of Delhi grew to be
     about half of the total rebel force, and included a regiment
     of "suicide ghazis" who had vowed never to eat again and to
     fight until they met death at the hands of the kafirs, "for
     those who have come to die have no need for food".

     The siege came to its climax on 14 September 1857, when
     British forces attacked the city. They proceeded to massacre
     not just the rebel sepoys and the jihadists, but also the
     ordinary citizens of the Mughal capital. In one neighbourhood
     alone, Kucha Chelan, some 1,400 unarmed citizens were cut
     down. "The orders went out to shoot every soul," recorded one
     young officer, Edward Vibart.

     "It was literally murder ... I have seen many bloody and
     awful sights lately but such a one as I witnessed yesterday I
     pray I never see again. The women were all spared but their
     screams, on seeing their husbands and sons butchered, were
     most painful... Heaven knows I feel no pity, but when some
     old grey bearded man is brought and shot before your very
     eyes, hard must be that man's heart I think who can look on
     with indifference..."

     Those city dwellers who survived the killing were driven out
     into the countryside to fend for themselves. Delhi, a
     bustling and sophisticated city of half a million souls, was
     left an empty ruin. Though the Mughal imperial family had
     surrendered peacefully, most of the emperor's 16 sons were
     tried and hung, while three were shot in cold blood, having
     first freely given up their arms, then been told to strip
     naked: "In 24 hours I disposed of the principal members of
     the house of Timur the Tartar," Captain William Hodson wrote
     to his sister the following day. "I am not cruel, but I
     confess I did enjoy the opportunity of ridding the earth of
     these wretches."

     The captured emperor was put on trial and charged - quite
     inaccurately - with being behind an international Muslim
     conspiracy to subvert the British Empire, stretching from
     Mecca and Iran to the walls of the Red Fort. Contrary to the
     evidence that the uprising broke out first among the
     overwhelmingly Hindu sepoys, the British prosecutor argued
     that, "toMusalman intrigues and Mahommedan conspiracy we may
     mainly attribute the dreadful calamities of 1857". Like some
     of the ideas propelling more recent adventures in the East,
     this was a ridiculous and bigoted over-simplification of a
     far more complex reality. As today, politicians found it
     easier to blame mindless "Muslim fanaticism" for the
     bloodshed they had unleashed than to examine the effects of
     their own foreign policies.

                         Reinforcing hatreds

     Yet the lessons of the bloody uprising of 1857 are very
     clear. No one likes people of a different faith conquering
     them, taking their land, or force-feeding them improving
     ideas at the point of a bayonet. The British in 1857
     discovered what Israel and the US are learning now: that
     nothing so easily radicalises a people against them, or so
     undermines the moderate aspect of Islam, as aggressive
     western intrusion in the East. The histories of Islamic
     fundamentalism and western imperialism have after all, long
     been closely and dangerously intertwined. In a curious but
     very concrete way, the fundamentalists of all three Abrahamic
     faiths have always needed each other to reinforce each
     other's prejudices and hatreds. The venom of one provides the
     lifeblood of the others.

     The violent suppression of the great uprising of 1857 was a
     pivotal moment in the history of British imperialism in
     India. It marked the end both of the East India Company and
     the Mughal dynasty, the two principal forces that had shaped
     Indian history over the previous 300 years, and replaced both
     with undisguised imperial rule by the British government.
     Shortly after Zafar's corpse had been tipped into its
     anonymous Burmese grave, Queen Victoria accepted the title
     "Empress of India" from Disraeli, initiating a very different
     period of direct imperial rule.

     Yet in many ways the legacy of the period is still with us,
     and there is a direct link between the jihadists of 1857 and
     those we face today. For the reaction of some of the Muslim
     ulema after 1857 was to reject the West and the gentle Sufi
     traditions of the Mughal emperors, who they tended to regard
     as western puppets; instead they attempted to return to pure
     Islamic roots. So was founded a Wahhabi-like madrasa at
     Deoband which went back to Koranic basics. One hundred and
     forty years later, it was out of Deobandi madrasas in
     Pakistan that the Taliban emerged to create the most
     retrograde Islamic regime in modern history, a regime that in
     turn provided the crucible from which emerged al-Qaida, the
     most radical Islamic counterattack the West has yet had to

     So does history repeat itself: not only are westerners again
     playing their old game of installing puppet regimes, propped
     up by western garrisons, for their own political ends, but
     more alarmingly the intellectual attitudes sustained by such
     adventures remain intact. Despite over 25 years of assault by
     Edward Said and his followers, old style Orientalism is still
     alive and kicking, its prejudices quite intact, with Samuel
     Huntingdon, Bernard Lewis and Charles Krauthammer in the
     roles of the new Mills and Macauleys. Through the pens of
     neo-con writers, the old colonial idea of the Muslim ruler as
     the decadent Oriental despot lives on; and as before it is
     effortlessly projected on to a credulous public by warmongers
     in order to justify their imperial projects.

     Today, West and East again face each other uneasily across a
     divide that many see as religious war. Suicide jihadists
     fight what they see as a defensive action against their
     Christian enemies, and again innocent civilians are
     slaughtered. As before, western evangelical politicians are
     apt to cast their opponents and enemies in the role of
     "incarnate fiends" and simplistically conflate armed
     resistance to invasion and occupation with "pure evil." Again
     western countries, blind to the effects of their foreign
     policies, feel aggrieved and surprised to be attacked - as
     they see it - by mindless fanatics. There are clear lessons
     here. For, in the celebrated words of Edmund Burke, those who
     fail to learn from history are always destined to repeat it.

     William Dalrymple is a writer and author, most recently, of
     The Last Mughal: The Fall of a Dynasty, Delhi, 1857
     (Bloomsbury, London, 2006) which has been awarded the Duff
     Cooper Prize for History and Biography

     Original text in English


        ALL RIGHTS RESERVED (c) 1997-2007 Le Monde diplomatique


----- End forwarded message -----

More information about the reader-list mailing list