Category Archives: democracy

Southern Sympathies Abroad, 1863

From Three Months in the Southern States, April-June 1863, by Arthur James Lyon Fremantle (Golden Springs, 2014), Kindle pp. 120-121:

General Johnston is a very well-read man, and agreeable to converse with. He told me that he considered Marlborough a greater general than Wellington. All Americans have an intense admiration for Napoleon; they seldom scruple to express their regret that he was beaten at Waterloo.

Remarking upon the extreme prevalence of military titles, General Johnston said, “You must be astonished to find how fond all Americans are of titles, though they are republicans; and as they can’t get any other sort, they all take military ones.”

Whilst seated round the camp fire in the evening, one of the officers remarked to me, “I can assure you, colonel, that nine men out of ten in the South would sooner become subjects of Queen Victoria than return to the Union.” “Nine men out of ten!” said General Johnston—”ninety-nine out of a hundred; I consider that few people in the world can be more fortunate in their government than the British colonies of North America.” But the effect of these compliments was rather spoilt when some one else said they would prefer to serve under the Emperor of the French or the Emperor of Japan to returning to the dominion of Uncle Abe; and it was still more damaged when another officer alluded in an undertone to the infernal regions as a more agreeable alternative than reunion with the Yankees.

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Mughal Legacies Erased

From The Last Mughal, by William Dalrymple (Knopf Doubleday, 2006), pp. 478-479, 484:

The autocratic political structures of Mughal rule received a devastating death blow. Only ninety years separated the British victory at the gates of Delhi in 1857 from the British eviction from South Asia through the Gateway of India in 1947. But while memories of British atrocities in 1857 may have assisted in the birth of Indian nationalism, as did the growing separation and mutual suspicion of rulers and ruled that followed the Uprising, it was not the few surviving descendants of the Mughals, nor any of the old princely and feudal rulers, who were in any way responsible for India’s march to independence. Instead, the Indian freedom movement was led by the new Anglicised and educated Colonial Service class who emerged from English-language schools after 1857, and who by and large used modern Western democratic structures and methods—political parties, strikes and protest marches—to gain their freedom.

Even after independence, the arts that were cultivated by the Mughals—the miniature-painting tradition, the ghazal, the delicate forms of Mughal architecture—never really regained their full vitality or artistic prestige, and remained—at least in some quarters—as discredited as the emperors who patronised them.

Today, if you visit the old Mughal city of Agra, perhaps to see the Taj Mahal, the supreme architectural achievement of Mughal rule, note how the roundabouts are full of statues of the Rani of Jhansi, Shivaji and even Subhas Chandra Bose; but not one image of any Mughal Emperor has been erected anywhere in the city since independence. Although a Bahadur Shah Zafar road still survives in Delhi, as indeed do roads named after all the other Great Mughals, for many Indians today, rightly or wrongly, the Mughals are perceived as it suited the British to portray them in the imperial propaganda that they taught in Indian schools after 1857: as sensual, decadent, temple-destroying invaders—something that was forcefully and depressingly demonstrated by the whole episode of the demolition of the Baburi Masjid at Ayodhya in 1992. The profoundly sophisticated, liberal and plural civilisation championed by Akbar, Dara Shukoh or the later Mughal Emperors has only a limited resonance for the urban middle class in modern India. Many of these are now deeply ambivalent about the achievements of the Mughals, even if they will still happily eat a Mughal meal, or flock to the cinema to watch a Bollywood Mughal epic, or indeed head to the Red Fort to hear their Prime Minister give the annual Independence Day speech from the battlements in front of the Lahore Gate.

There was nothing inevitable about the demise and extinction of the Mughals, as the sepoys’ dramatic surge towards the court of Delhi showed. But in the years to come, as Muslim prestige and learning sank, and Hindu confidence, wealth, education and power increased, Hindus and Muslims would grow gradually apart, as British policies of divide and rule found willing collaborators among the chauvinists of both faiths. The rip in the closely woven fabric of Delhi’s composite culture, opened in 1857, slowly widened into a great gash, and at Partition in 1947 finally broke in two. As the Indian Muslim elite emigrated en masse to Pakistan, the time would soon come when it would be almost impossible to imagine that Hindu sepoys could ever have rallied to the Red Fort and the standard of a Muslim emperor, joining with their Muslim brothers in an attempt to revive the Mughal Empire.

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1857: Uprising as Class Warfare

From The Last Mughal, by William Dalrymple (Knopf Doubleday, 2006), Kindle pp. 154-155:

Whatever its causes, the response to the Uprising fractured along distinct class lines. From the morning of 11 May onwards, the most enthusiastic insurgents among the people of Delhi were the workmen of the lower middle class—especially the Muslim weavers and textile merchants—and the same Punjabi Muslim manufacturing and merchant class who had long supported the mujahedin movement. It was these people who immediately swelled the ranks of the initially very small number of sepoys who had arrived in the Mughal capital, creating a panic and allowing many of the poorer Delhiwallahs to set off on an orgy of looting.

In contrast, the Delhi elite, both Hindu and Muslim, remained divided on the merits of joining the Uprising, and were from the start dubious about playing host to large numbers of desperate and violent sepoys from the east of Hindustan. According to one angry eyewitness, the nobleman Abdul Latif: “The teachings of all religions were ignored and violated; even the poor women and children were not spared. The elite and the respected gentry of the city were appalled at the actions [of the insurgents] and were seen pleading with them. Ah! An entire world was destroyed, and as a result of these sins this city was struck down by the evil-eye.” Ghalib was also quite clear that he didn’t like the look of what was happening: “Swarming through the open gates of Delhi, the intoxicated horsemen and rough foot soldiers ravished the city,” he wrote. …

For Ghalib, the Uprising was more about the rise of the rabble of the lower classes than it was about the fall of the British. For him the most terrifying aspect of the revolution was the way his own courtly elite seemed to have lost control to a group of ill-educated ruffians of dubious ancestry: “Noble men and great scholars have fallen from power,” he wrote,

and nameless men with neither name nor pedigree nor jewels nor gold, now have prestige and unlimited riches. One who wandered dust-stained through the streets as if blown by an idle wind, has proclaimed the wind his slave … In its shamelessness the rabble, sword in hand, rallied to one group after another. Throughout the day the rebels looted the city, and at night they slept in silken beds … The city of Delhi was emptied of its rulers and peopled instead by creatures of the Lord who accepted no lord—as if it were a garden without a gardener, and full of fruitless trees … The Emperor was powerless to repulse them; their forces gathered around him, and he fell under their duress, engulfed by them as the moon is engulfed by the eclipse.

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1857: The Sepoy Jihad

From The Last Mughal, by William Dalrymple (Knopf Doubleday, 2006), Kindle pp. 22-23:

For many the appeal of the Mughal Emperor was as much religious as political. As far as the Indian participants were concerned, the Uprising was overwhelmingly expressed as a war of religion, and looked upon as a defensive action against the rapid inroads missionaries and Christianity were making in India, as well as a more generalised fight for freedom from foreign domination. The Great Mutiny has usually been presented by the Marxist historians of the 1960s and 1970s primarily as a rising against British social and economic policies, as both urban revolution and a peasants’ revolt sparked off by loss of land rights and employment opportunities as much as anything else. All this certainly played a part. Yet when the Indian participants of the Uprising articulate the reason for their revolt—as they do with great frequency and at some length in the Mutiny Papers—they invariably state that they were above all resisting a move by the Company to impose Christianity and Christian laws on India—something many Evangelical Englishmen were indeed contemplating.

As the sepoys told Zafar on 11 May 1857, “we have joined hands to protect our religion and our faith.” 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 late as 6 September, when calling the people of Delhi to rally against the coming assault by the British, a proclamation issued in the name of Zafar spelled out very plainly “that this is a religious war, and is being prosecuted on account of the faith, and it behoves all Hindus and Musalman residents of the imperial city, or of the villages in the country…to continue true to their faith and creeds.” Even if one accepts that the word “religion” (for Muslims din) is often being used in the very general and non-sectarian sense of dharma (or duty, righteousness)—so that when the sepoys say they are rising to defend their dharma, they mean as much their way of life as their sectarian religious identity—it is still highly significant that the Urdu sources usually refer to the British not as angrez (the English) or as goras (whites) or even firangis, but instead almost always as kafirs (infidels) and nasrani (Christians).

Although the great majority of the sepoys were Hindus, in Delhi a flag of jihad was raised in the principal mosque, and many of the insurgents described themselves as mujahedin, ghazis and jihadis. Indeed, by the end of the siege, after a significant proportion of the sepoys had melted away, unpaid, hungry and dispirited, the proportion of jihadis in Delhi grew to be about a quarter of the total fighting force, and included a regiment of “suicide ghazis” from Gwalior 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.” One of the causes of unrest, according to one Delhi source, was that “the British had closed the madrasas.” These were words that had no resonance to the historians of the 1960s. Now, sadly, in the aftermath of 9/11 and 7/7, they are phrases we understand all too well, and words like jihad scream out of the dusty pages of the source manuscripts, demanding attention.

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Centralization in UN Afghanistan

From Afghanistan: A Cultural and Political History, by Thomas Barfield (Princeton U. Press, 2010), Kindle pp. 302-303:

Although Afghanistan’s regions had become autonomous during the Afghan civil war, the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) and the United States both pushed to reestablish a highly centralized government of the type that had failed repeatedly in the past. Abdur Rahman created the first centralized Afghan state in the late nineteenth century only after many bloody military campaigns, but his political goals had been limited to destroying internal rivals, preserving his supremacy, and maintaining order. Later rulers who thought they could use his state model to impose change on the country soon found that it was not up to the task. The reforming King Amanullah was overthrown, and his state collapsed in 1929, requiring two generations to fully restore. Only the Soviet invasion in 1979 preserved the unpopular PDPA regime from a similar collapse after it too found the Afghan state institutions weaker than expected. During the civil war that followed the dissolution of the PDPA in 1992, Afghanistan reverted to its older pattern of regional autonomy that even the Taliban could do little to change. Arriving UNAMA officials saw the lack of a strong centralized state as a symptom of Afghanistan’s problems and moved to restore it. Though written to serve monarchs, the constitutions of 1923 and 1964 were used as templates for the constitution of 2004. This new constitution made the Karzai government responsible for everything from appointing provincial governors to paying local schoolteachers.

The enthusiasm for restoring a highly centralized government was confined to the international community and the Kabul elite that ran it. Many other Afghans saw such governments as the source of Afghanistan’s past problems. Critics contended that decentralization better suited Afghanistan because such governments had so badly neglected the rest of the country. The nondemocratic regimes that had ruled Afghanistan previously saw this as an acceptable price for the greater political control it gave them, particularly by preventing the reemergence of powerful regional elites, which had characterized Afghan politics before 1880. But the impact of twenty-five years of warfare changed this situation. Regions wanted a direct choice in how they were to be governed at the local level. The international community saw assertions of such regional autonomy as signs of disorder that needed to be curbed. They dismissed decentralization proponents as supporters of warlords who would bring the country to ruin. In fact, establishing governmental order and services by region, rather than centrally from Kabul, had considerable merit. It would have proven more effective and given people more of a stake in local administration. In addition there was always the risk that if a highly centralized government faltered, the consequences would be nationwide.

Any prospect of central state failure was dismissed by those who touted Karzai as a sure bet for success after he steered the country through the constitutional process and his own election as president in 2004. Afghans were less sanguine because they saw Karzai in a different light, as a vacillating leader who was unwilling to confront his enemies or discipline his allies.

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Afghanistan’s New Class

From Afghanistan: A Cultural and Political History, by Thomas Barfield (Princeton U. Press, 2010), Kindle pp. 167-169:

Abdur Rahman’s imprint would remain surprisingly strong over time, as Barnett Rubin discovered through a statistical analysis of who held prominent government positions eighty years later.

The ethnic composition of the old regime [of the 1970s] was remarkably similar to that of the court circles originally recruited by Amir Abdur Rahman. The most salient characteristic of that elite was that it included more than ten times the concentration of Muhammadzais and Kabulis than the population as a whole. Other Pashtuns were also over-represented, and the overrepresentation of Pashtuns and Muhammadzais was greater among the core power holders than it was in the elite as a whole. Tajiks (mostly Kabulis) were also quite predominant, but mainly in the legal, financial, and social ministries; Pashtuns held the core of power.

The power base of this new elite stood in sharp contrast to the old feudal aristocracy, although it remained largely Pashtun in origin. The feudal aristocracy’s economic power had rested on its landed estates in the provinces, and its political power was derived either from the troops that it could muster or its ability to mobilize its own people in support of (or opposition to) the national government. Abdur Rahman’s elite drew its wealth and political influence either from state patronage that could be withdrawn at any time or their ability to influence state policy. Unlike previous Afghan elites, these people were not masters of a national government but rather its servants. It was a rentier aristocracy that would live in a hothouse world in which everyone knew everyone else (and where everyone not related by birth appeared to be connected by marriage). Members of the Muhammadzai clan in particular would come to display a paradoxical air of aristocratic hauteur undercut by a political servility that ill befit either Afghanistan’s egalitarian ethos or its tribal emphasis on preserving personal autonomy. More significantly for Afghanistan’s future, they were city people in a land where the vast majority of the population still lived in rural villages. Their ties to, and understanding of, this “other Afghanistan” were weak. For the next eighty years, national politics would be restricted to the city of Kabul and the state-dependent elite that held the reins of power there.

Like a similar prerevolutionary aristocracy in France, a small but influential minority of their members were supporters of radical social and political change. They assumed that they would be the leaders of any progressive movement because they were the only educated people in the country. Yet the expansion of the government and economy in the 1960s began to produce a larger class of educated people, who lacked the same access to power and wealth, and the respect for the existing structures of power. Previously, the number of such people was so small that they could be incorporated into the older aristocracy directly or at least co-opted into its patronage network with government jobs. But by the 1970s, their numbers had become too large and their social origins too diverse for this tactic to be effective. The dominating role of Kabul in Afghan political life instead had the perverse effect of creating a mirror counter-elite that Rubin labeled “rentier revolutionaries.” While these groups spoke of radical socialist change that would transform Afghanistan, their means of achieving this goal were the same as their royal predecessors’: to control the state’s assets and use its power themselves.

Based almost exclusively in Kabul, this counter-elite had few ties to rural Afghanistan, even though many had provincial origins. They certainly had no political base there. Rather, they saw themselves as a socialist vanguard party that would use the state to reorganize the economy and Afghan society from the top down. Although more radical, they shared with the Muhammadzais a dependency on state institutions and state power to implement such changes. After taking control of the state structure in 1978, they assumed that they could use its power to impose their policies on the rest of the country at a rapid pace. Never was an assumption more unwarranted. The realities on the ground in Afghanistan would prove much more challenging and difficult, as this and all future governments would come to learn through hard experience. It would also raise questions long buried: What made a government legitimate, and who had the right to rule?

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Religion and Rebellion in Afghanistan

From Afghanistan: A Cultural and Political History, by Thomas Barfield (Princeton U. Press, 2010), Kindle pp. 122-124:

Until 1840 religion had played a minor role in internal Afghan politics because fighting had always been Muslim on Muslim. Raising the banner of jihad had been a popular way to mobilize Afghans outward for invasions directed at the polytheists on the Indian plain or their Muslim rulers. But the British occupation of Afghanistan in support of Shuja raised the question of whether his regime had lost the authority normally inherent to a Muslim ruler. If Shuja’s government was just a cloak for the rule of foreign infidels, then rebellion against it would be justified. The charge that the government had betrayed Afghanistan’s Muslims and deserved to be toppled was therefore a constant theme in the propaganda directed against the British and Shuja. It had surprisingly little resonance when the British first invaded. It gained traction as the occupation continued, particularly as the British began to direct more of the government’s workings themselves. Putting Afghan opposition in a religious framework also made it more difficult for the British to mobilize previously willing allies among the Ghilzai chiefs. These chiefs declared that it would be politically fatal to take a public stance against a popular jihad opposing foreign occupation when it was so strongly supported by their followers. Of course, as ibn Khaldun had observed, religion had always been the best way to unite tribes that were otherwise too divided to unite on any other basis. It also ennobled more self-interested political, economic, and personal motives. Shuja himself complained that “these men are not influenced by considerations of religion, they give their lives for the wealth of this world and do not fear death.” That may have been true, but leaping to a “defense of Islam” to justify resisting a regime in Kabul or its policies would henceforth become a sword that was rarely sheathed in Afghan politics, regardless of whether foreigners were actually present on Afghan soil.

The rebellions against the British did not originate within Afghanistan’s Durrani elite. Although those who had experienced a loss of power may have incited others to violence, they took on leadership roles only well after the fighting had started. Instead, the first rebellions were mounted by more marginal groups that had their own grievances. The most important of these were the Pashtun Ghilzai tribes to the east and south of Kabul, and the Tajik Kohistanis of the plains and mountains north of Kabul. Chiefs and clergy from these regions who mobilized their own fighters were at the center of the resistance, not the existing forces of the irregular cavalry that were commanded by the Durranis. The trouble was also localized. The Durranis in Qandahar did not rise at all until two months after Kabul had fallen and then failed to take the city. Nor were there uprisings among the Hazaras, the Uzbeks, or in distant Herat. But in spite of their crucial contributions to the success of the war, neither the Kohistanis nor the Ghilzais took the opportunity to put themselves into power. They instead sought out military and political leadership from the existing (and politically vacillating) Barakzai and Sadozai elite. For example, the Kohistanis initially raised troops in the name of Shuja until he denounced them for using his name and forged seals to justify their rebellion. When it became clear that Shuja was sticking with the British, the Ghilzais and Kohistanis then rallied around Akbar when he took command of the forces besieging their cantonment in Kabul. Although it was he who took the lead in dealing with the British politically, Akbar’s power then and in the months that followed depended more on his Ghilzai allies than his Barakzai kinsmen.

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