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terrorism – flip side of imperialism?

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in his book “the last mughal”, william dalrymple talks about how india went from a london-like, ‘culturally, racially and religiously chutnified’ melting pot where westerners (or so called white mughals) went native and lived in relative racial and religious harmony with local indians during the early days of the east india company, to the arrogance, racism and violence of 19th century raj. he attributes this unfortunate shift to two things:

‘one was the rise of british power: in a few years the british had defeated not only the french, but all their other indian rivals; and, in a manner not unlike the americans after the fall of the berlin wall, the changed balance of power quickly led to undisguised imperial arrogance. no longer was the west prepared to study and learn from the subcontinent; instead, thomas macaulay came to speak for a whole generation of englishmen when he declared that “a single shelf of a good european library was worth the whole native literature of india and arabia”.

the other factor was the ascendancy of evangelical christianity, and the profound change in social, sexual and racial attitudes that this brought about. the wills written by dying east india company servants show that the practice of cohabiting with indian bibis quickly declined: they turn up in one in three wills between 1780 and 1785, but are present in only one in four between 1805 and 1810. by the middle of the century, they have all but disappeared. in half a century, a vibrantly multicultural world refracted back into its component parts; children of mixed race were corralled into what became in effect a new indian caste – the anglo-indians – who were left to run the railways, posts and mines.’

this is how india moved ‘from a huge measure of racial intermixing in the late 18th century to a position of complete racial apartheid by the 1850s’. in his article “the last mughal and a clash of civilizations” (new statesman, october 16, 2006), dalrymple draws a parallel between the forces at work in 19th century british india and those affecting world events today:

‘just like it is today, this process of pulling apart – of failing to talk, listen or trust each other – took place against the background of an increasingly aggressive and self-righteous west, facing ever stiffer islamic resistance to western interference. 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.

by the 1850s, the british had progressed from aggressively removing independent-minded muslim rulers, such as tipu sultan, who refused to bow before the will of the hyperpower, to destabilising and then annexing even the most pliant muslim states. in february 1856, the british unilaterally annexed the prosperous kingdom of avadh (or oudh), using the excuse that the nawab, wajid ali shah, a far-from-belligerent dancer and epicure, was “debauched”.

by this time, other british officials who believed in a “forward” policy of pre-emptive action were nursing plans to abolish (emperor) zafar’s mughal court in delhi, and to impose not just british laws and technology on india, but also british values, in the form of christianity. the missionaries reinforced muslim fears, increasing opposition to british rule and creating a constituency for the rapidly multiplying jihadis. and, in turn, “wahhabi conspiracies” strengthened the conviction of the evangelical christians that a “strong attack” was needed to take on the “muslim fanatics”.’

this became the breeding ground for the great mutiny of 1857 (what we in the sub-continent call the war of independence). the mutiny was disorganized, ruthless and bloody. on september 14, 1857 the british squashed the mutiny and exacted fierce revenge on the local population.

dalrymple continues:

‘today, west and east again face each other uneasily across a divide that many see as a religious war. suicide jihadis fight what they see as a defensive action against their christian enemies, and again innocent civilians are slaughtered.

as before, western evangelical christian politicians are apt to cast their opponents and enemies in the role of “incarnate fiends” and simplistically conflate any armed resistance to invasion and occupation with “pure evil”. again, western countries, blind to the effect their foreign policies have on the wider world, feel aggrieved and surprised to be attacked, as they see it, by mindless fanatics.

and yet, 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.’

last mughal emperor: bahadur shah zafar

One Comment

  1. WEll said!
    Just read a review in the New Yorker by Pankaj Mishra of Alex Von Tunzelmann’s book “Indian Summer”. She recounts how, “many of the British decisions stoked Hindu-Muslim tensions, imposing sharp new religious-political identities on Indians.” A “deeper tragedy in a land where cultures, traditions, & beliefs cut across religious communities, few people had defined themselves exclusively through their ancestral faith”. Mishra ends the review with “the rival nationalisms & politicized religions the British Empire brought into being now clash in an enlarged geopolitical area; and the human cost of imperial overreaching seem unlikely to attain a final tally for many more decades”.

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