An essay in imperial villain-making
A fanatical Muslim despot was resisting the west, there were calls for regime change. We have, of course, been here before
Tuesday May 24, 2005
By the end of the 90s, the hardliners calling for regime change in the east found that they had a powerful ally in government. This new president was not prepared to wait to be attacked: he was a new sort of conservative, aggressive in foreign policy, bitterly anti-French, and intent on turning his country into the unrivalled global power. It was best, he believed, simply to remove any hostile Muslim regime that presumed to resist the west.
There was no doubt who would be the first to be targeted: a Muslim dictator whose family had usurped power in a military coup. According to British sources, this chief of state was an "intolerant bigot", a "furious fanatic" with a "rooted and inveterate hatred of Europeans", who had "perpetually on his tongue the projects of jihad". He was also deemed to be "oppressive and unjust ... [a] sanguinary tyrant, [and a] perfidious negotiator".
It was, in short, time to take out Tipu Sultan of Mysore. The president of the board of control, Henry Dundas, the minister who oversaw the East India Company, had just the man for the job. Richard Wellesley was sent out to India in 1798 as governor general with specific instructions to effect regime change in Mysore and replace Tipu with a western-backed puppet. First, however, Wellesley and Dundas had to justify to the British public a policy whose outcome had long been decided in private.
Wellesley therefore began a campaign of vilification against Tipu, portraying him as an aggressive Muslim monster who divided his time between oppressing his subjects and planning to drive the British into the sea. This essay in imperial villain-making opened the way for a lucrative conquest and the installation of a more pliable regime that would, in the words of Wellesley, allow the British to give the impression they were handing the country back to its rightful owners while in reality maintaining firm control.
It is a truth universally acknowledged that a politician in search of a war is not over-scrupulous with matters of fact. Until recently, the British propaganda offensive against Tipu has determined the way that we - and many Indians - remember him. But, as with more recent dossiers produced to justify pre-emptive military action against mineral-rich Muslim states, the evidence reveals far more about the desires of the attacker than it does about the reality of the attacked.
Recent work by scholars has succeeded in reconstructing a very different Tipu to the one-dimensional fanatic invented by Wellesley. Tipu, it is now clear, was one of the most innovative and far-sighted rulers of the pre-colonial period. He tried to warn other Indian rulers of the dangers of an increasingly arrogant and aggressive west. "Know you not the custom of the English?" he wrote in vain to the nizam of Hyderabad in 1796. "Wherever they fix their talons they contrive little by little to work themselves into the whole management of affairs."
What really worried the British was less that Tipu was a Muslim fanatic, something strange and alien, but that he was frighteningly familiar: a modernising technocrat who used the weapons of the west against their inventors. Indeed, in many ways, he beat them at their own game: the Mysore sepoy's flintlocks - as the examples for sale in an auction of Tipu memorabilia at Sotheby's tomorrow demonstrate - were based on the latest French designs, and were much superior to the company's old matchlocks.
Tipu also tried to import industrial technology through French engineers, and experimented with harnessing water-power to drive his machinery. He sent envoys to southern China to bring back silkworm eggs and established sericulture in Mysore - an innovation that still enriches the region today. More remarkably, he created what amounted to a state trading company with its own ships and factories dotted across the Gulf. British propaganda might portray Tipu as a savage barbarian, but he was something of a connoisseur, with a library of about 2,000 volumes in several languages.
Moreover, contrary to the propaganda of the British, Tipu - far from being some sort of fundamentalist - continued the Indo-Islamic tradition of syncretism. He certainly destroyed temples in Hindu states that he conquered in war, but temples lying within his domains were viewed as protected state property and generously supported with lands and gifts of money and even padshah lingams - a unique case of a Muslim sultan facilitating the Shaivite phallus veneration. When the great Sringeri temple was destroyed by a Maratha raiding party, Tipu sent funds for its rebuilding. "People who have sinned against such a holy place," wrote a solicitous Tipu, "are sure soon to suffer the consequences of their misdeeds."
Tipu knew what he was risking when he took on the British, but he said, "I would rather live a day as a tiger than a lifetime as a sheep." As the objects in tomorrow's sale show, the culture of innovation Tipu fostered in Mysore stands record to a man very different from that imagined by the Islamophobic propaganda of the British - and the startling inaccuracy of Wellesley's "dodgy dossier" of 1799. The fanatical bigot and savage was in fact an intellectual.
The whole episode is a sobering reminder of the degree to which old-style imperialism has made a comeback under Bush and Blair. There is nothing new about the neocons. Not only are westerners again playing their old game of installing puppet regimes, propped up by western garrisons, for their own political and economic ends but, more alarmingly, the intellectual attitudes that buttressed and sustained such imperial adventures remain intact.
Despite over 25 years of assault by Edward Said and his followers, old-style Orientalism is alive and kicking, its prejudices intact, with columnists such as Mark Steyn and Andrew Sullivan in the role of the new Mills and Macaulays. Through their pens - blissfully unencumbered by any knowledge of the Muslim world - the old colonial idea of the Islamic ruler as the decadent, destructive, degenerate Oriental despot lives on and, as before, it is effortlessly projected on a credulous public by western warmongers in order to justify their own imperial projects. Dundas and Wellesley were certainly more intelligent and articulate than Bush or Rumsfeld, but they were no less cynical in their aims, nor less ruthless in the means they employed to effect them.