Category Archives: education

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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Crucible of the Taliban

From Afghanistan: A Cultural and Political History, by Thomas Barfield (Princeton U. Press, 2010), Kindle pp. 255-257:

The Taliban was a cross-border movement led by Afghan Pashtuns trained in Deobandi madrasas in Pakistan. Its ideological roots lay there, and its Afghan leaders had close ties with religious parties in Pakistan. The madrasas had grown at a tremendous rate in Pakistan under Zia al Haq, attracting a large number of Afghan refugee boys by offering free room and board along with education. During the Soviet war, the schools’ graduates joined the mujahideen to fight in Afghanistan in defense of Islam through the existing Peshawar party structure. But because the civil war now pitted Muslim against Muslim, the Taliban movement’s goal shifted to ending the disorder while also reforming Afghanistan’s religious and cultural practices by creating a pure Islamic state along Salafist lines. This ambition was shared by the religious parties within Pakistan, but the disorder in Afghanistan gave the Taliban a better chance of achieving it.

The Taliban was unlike other Afghan political movements not only in the exclusively clerical origin of its leaders but in the refugee origins of its followers too. The Soviet war lasted for so long and the refugee flow into neighboring countries was so great that over time they created a new class of people: refugee Afghans born in Pakistan who had never seen the country or experienced life there. Refugee camps are notorious hotbeds for radical movements of all types because they are generally poor, provide few opportunities for young people, and are under the control of political factions that manipulate their populations. The hope of recovering a lost homeland is a particularly powerful ideal, but as time passes the view of this homeland becomes more and more mythical because refugee children know of it only by hearsay. The past is idealized because the present is so miserable and the future is so uncertain. Groups with extreme messages, whether their ideologies are political, ethnic, or religious, galvanize their followers not only with the visions of reclaiming a lost homeland but also of then transforming it. Refugees in Afghanistan did better than most. They experienced a tactical victory when the Soviets withdrew and in theory could return to their homeland.

But the fighting among the mujahideen foreclosed that option for most. Even when the refugees did return, their homeland was not what they had known when they left it. Although poor before the war, the Afghan economy at least functioned, and there was general security for life and property. Now there was none. The mujahideen, who had been heroes in the anti-Soviet jihad, lost respect when they became mere factions engaged in self-interested and violent struggles for power with other similar groups. The Taliban drew on this discontent in two ways. First, they recruited men who had been too young to participate in the anti-Soviet war and gave them a chance to participate in a new type of jihad—one that would bring a “truer version” of Islam to Afghanistan. Jihad had been the focal experience for young men throughout the Soviet war, and a new generation of refugee youths was looking for a goal that was equally as idealistic. That the Taliban’s view of Islam was far more radically reactionary than any existing in Afghanistan previously meant little to people who had nothing to compare it with. For them it was far easier to imagine an ideal Afghan way of life, and to enforce it on others, because they drew their lessons from religious schools rather than the give-and-take of everyday life. Their hostility toward women may well have stemmed from being removed from their families and female relations at an early age to grow up in all-male religious schools. Second, the Taliban drew on the discontent of the population living in areas where chaos prevailed. For them, any ideology or regime that could bring about stability was preferable to the status quo.

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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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Sweden’s Sture Age

From Scandinavia: A History, by Ewan Butler (New Word City, 2016), Kindle pp. 72-75:

Now Karl Knutsson was recalled to the throne for the third time. Although he was by no means a great man and suffered throughout his political life from his inability to win the love and trust of the peasants, as Engelbrekt had done, Knutsson has a place of honor in the story of Sweden; in his time, he provided a focal point for Swedish dreams of freedom and independence. Before he died in May 1470, Knutsson named Sten Sture as succeeding regent. Sture was never to seek the title of king and thus initiated the period which has come to be known as “the Sture Age.”

Christian, of course, was far from being reconciled to the turn of events in Sweden, and in the summer of 1471, his fleet set sail for Stockholm carrying with it a large and well-equipped army. Upon landing in Sweden the Danish forces were joined by the Unionist nobility, and the combined armies laid siege to Stockholm. Sture called upon the peasants of Svealand, the great province that stretches almost from the Baltic to the Norwegian frontier, to rally to the Swedish cause, and they came in the thousands. The rustic Swedish army then marched upon Stockholm, and on October 10, 1471, one of the great dates of Swedish history, they confronted the Danes on the heights of Brunkeberg, just beyond the northern wall of the city.

The battle that followed ended in a complete triumph for Sture’s legions. The Dannebrog, that miraculous standard, was captured by the embattled countryfolk; Christian himself was wounded, and the flower of Danish nobility was killed. This decisive victory gave Sweden peace with Denmark for a generation, and in thankfulness for the country’s deliverance, Sten Sture commissioned the German wood carver Bernt Notke to fashion a heroic statue of Saint George, the city’s patron saint. The statue was presented to Sture in the Church of Saint Nicholas, in Stockholm. It stands there to this day, gloriously ornate: Saint George, in splendid armor, his horse similarly caparisoned and plumed, rides with sword raised, while beneath the hoofs of his rearing steed writhes a dragon of singularly repellent aspect.

Christian, his military ambitions considerably reduced, now set himself to make Copenhagen a center of scholarship. Up to that time, no secular centers of learning existed in Scandinavia. Advanced education was offered in the north only under the aegis of the Catholic Church or pursued abroad, usually at the University of Paris. He declared his intention to found the first university of Scandinavia. Informed of this project, Sture resolved to beat his old enemy even in this, and in 1477, the great University of Uppsala, now a seat of learning renowned throughout the world, opened its doors to its first students. Copenhagen did not have its university until a year later. Under Sture’s guidance, Sweden began to emerge into the modern world. Six years after the foundation of the university, Sweden was given its first printing press, also at Uppsala, and regent and archbishop gathered around this mechanical wonder, which turned out the first printed book in Swedish in 1483.

In 1481, Christian I of Denmark died, and the Danes, anxious to restore the Union, proposed that the election of a successor should be postponed until representatives of all three Scandinavian nations could meet to thrash out a new constitution for the Union. A meeting was held at Halmstad in 1483, but it was attended by delegations from Norway and Denmark only, as Sten Sture boycotted the gathering. Christian’s son, John, was elected king of Norway and Denmark, but no word came from Sweden, where Sture was having trouble, as usual, with the nobility. This time, however, he held a weapon which kept them in check: The peasants idolized “Our Lord Sture” and whenever the nobles showed signs of serious opposition, Sture called a Riksdag. The solid backing which the peasants and small merchants gave him at these meetings, of which twenty were held between 1470 and 1497, was enough to intimidate the regent’s aristocratic enemies.

Peaceful progress was not destined to last long, however. In 1495, the Swedish nobles persuaded Russia to declare war on Sweden while they themselves joined forces with King John of Denmark, hoping that Sture would be unable to face a war on two fronts. The regent, however, got the better of the Russian forces in Finland; he then rounded on the Danes and the rebel Swedish noblemen, who were led by Svante Nilsson Natt och Dag. (The latter part of his name translates as Night and Day, a reflection of the blue and gold quarterings on his coat-of-arms.)

Civil war broke out in Sweden, and Sture had almost subdued the rebels when John of Denmark’s fleet appeared off the coast with a large sea-borne army. Once again, the peasants formed up behind their “Lord.” In a letter to the governors of Stockholm, the peasants of Dalecarlia wrote: “Dear friends, you all know that since he became our regent we have enjoyed law and order, and peace and quiet have reigned. You also know that the provinces and castles of our Fatherland were formerly in divers hands, but that they are now united because he ventured life and property in this cause. Since he has served us so faithfully, we cannot suffer him to be driven from the regency by force.” For all the support of the local peasants, however, Sture did not command sufficient forces to risk a pitched battle against John’s powerful array, and he fell back to Stockholm, where he was besieged. His pleas for reinforcements from other parts of the country seem to have gone unheeded, and in October 1497, Sture surrendered the city in return for a full amnesty for himself and all his followers. John was at once elected king of Sweden by the triumphant noblemen who had backed him.

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Return of the Elder Edda

From Scandinavia: A History, by Ewan Butler (New Word City, 2016), Kindle pp. 39-41:

Beginning with Norwegian colonization in the tenth century, the art of heroic poetry flourished in Iceland. The tradition came with the invaders, and many of the sagas dwell on ancient Norwegian history, but the poetic gift seems to have been uniquely Icelandic. The earliest works were oral literature, composed by anonymous poets, and they survived from one generation to the next. These and many newly written ones began to be set down on calfskin in the thirteenth century by scholar-monks. Of the vast body of prose and poetry they produced, some 700 manuscripts and fragments of manuscripts have survived to inform students of Scandinavian history. The poetry falls into two broad categories – anonymous Eddaic poems, which relate the deeds of ancient pagan gods and mortal heroes, and the skaldic poems, told by professional skalds, or poets, and based upon Christian themes and personalities.

The most famous of the historical sagas are, perhaps, the Halljreda Saga, which deals with the days of King Olaf Trygvasson, the Saga of Eric the Red, the Saga of the Greenlanders, and the Heimskringla, a collection of sagas written by Snorri Sturluson giving an account of the history of Norway through the semilegendary biographies of its kings, from early times up to the year 1177.

Two collections of sagas exist under the general name of Edda. About the year 1650, after Iceland had become an appendage of Denmark, an Icelandic bishop discovered an old parchment book whose text bore similarities to the known Edda but appeared to be of earlier vintage. He called it the Elder Edda. Unhappily for Iceland, the bishop’s daughter had just been seduced by a young priest, and her angry father was resolved that the girl’s honor should be properly avenged. Accordingly, he offered his precious manuscripts to the king of Denmark on the strict condition that the erring priest should be heavily punished. We are not told what happened to the poor young man, but in due time, the Elder Edda found its way to the Royal Library of Copenhagen to the great and lasting resentment of all Icelanders.

In April 1971, a Danish naval frigate dropped anchor in the harbor of Reykjavík to be greeted by most of the city’s 70,000 inhabitants. The ship brought back, at long last, the precious manuscripts to be given into the care of the Icelandic nation, and the occasion was one of deep rejoicing. For the Icelanders today still hold the world’s record as publishers and readers of books. Each year some 600 new books come off the presses in Reykjavík and most of these run into editions of from 5,000 to 7,000 copies. No other nation has so many publishers or readers per capita, although the Finns and Norwegians come close. With this 1,000-year tradition of love and respect for the written word, little wonder that the return of their precious sagas meant so much to the people of the little republic.

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Truman’s First Press Conference

From The Accidental President: Harry S. Truman and the Four Months That Changed the World, by A. J. Baime (HMH Books, 2017), Kindle pp. 140-142:

At 10:30 a.m., dozens filed into the Oval Office for Truman’s first press conference. Standing behind his desk, he greeted reporters as they pushed into the room, which quickly grew uncomfortably crowded. Regular presidential press conferences were a tradition going back to Woodrow Wilson, who on March 15, 1913, set a precedent of welcoming newspaper reporters into his office to answer questions. Roosevelt had held two a week and had elevated these meetings to high art. Wielding his cigarette holder as if conducting an orchestra, he would deliver soliloquies that would entrance his guests, while almost always failing on purpose to answer any question posed.

On April 17 the largest crowd ever assembled for a presidential press conference pushed into the Oval Office—348 men and women reporters—all aiming to size up the new chief executive. Some were forced to stand on the terrace outside the president’s office—lucky ones, because the room got exceedingly hot.

“Good morning,” Truman said, “good morning.”

“Good morning, Mr. President,” someone in the crowd said. “Will you take it sort of slow for us today, please, sir?”

“Surely, surely,” Truman said. “Anything I can do to accommodate you.”

No one in the room could help making comparisons to Roosevelt. For one thing, this president was standing up. “We all knew that Roosevelt had gone to Groton and then Harvard,” recalled White House correspondent Robert Nixon, who was getting his first crack at Truman that morning. “That [Roosevelt] came from a quite old, well-to-do family; that he moved in what is known as the best circles all of his life . . . Truman was a small town, Midwestern Missourian of farm origin . . . The contrast was in appearance, voice mannerisms, and even their attire. President Roosevelt, while a casual dresser, was very well tailored . . . Truman dressed like he had just come off of Main Street in Independence.”

The new president called for attention. “The first thing I want to do to you is to read the rules,” he said. After telling the reporters what they already knew—everything he said was background material, no direct quotes were allowed unless there was specific permission—he began by announcing that most of the Roosevelt staff would stay on, and that Matthew Connelly had been appointed his confidential secretary. Truman read a letter aloud from Mrs. Roosevelt, thanking everyone for their wishes, “which have brought great comfort and consolation to all of us.” Due to the wartime paper shortage, Mrs. Roosevelt would not be responding to all correspondence. Instead, she had asked Truman to read her thank-you letter to the press.

Truman then opened the floor. He answered questions about reciprocal trade, race relations, the wartime ban on horseracing, and the historic United Nations Conference set to open in eight days.

“Mr. President,” said one reporter in the crowd. “Will Mrs. Truman have a press conference?”

“I would rather not answer that question at this time.”

At numerous moments Truman delivered witticisms that sparked laughter in the room. The Missourian had a simple way of speaking that amused his counterparts in the press. He whittled his ideas down to the fewest words and handed them over. Unlike Roosevelt, Truman actually answered questions, and if he chose not to, he said just that.

“His first press conferences were wonderful,” noted press secretary Daniels. At the end of this first one, something happened that had never occurred in any of Roosevelt’s meetings with the press: the room erupted in spontaneous applause.

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Bornu Slave Raid on Mandara, 1851

From A Labyrinth of Kingdoms: 10,000 Miles through Islamic Africa, by Steve Kemper (W. W. Norton, 2012), Kindle pp. 175-177:

THE OFFICIAL REASON FOR THE MILITARY EXPEDITION WAS TO PUNISH the vassal state of Mandara for disobedience. The real reason was that the “coffers and slave-rooms of the great men” of Bornu were empty. The lawless Welad Sliman and the legitimate government of Bornu were both motivated by greed, but the mercenary Arabs didn’t bother to disguise or rationalize their conduct.

A Bornu military campaign moved with ponderous, gaudy pomp. The boom of a great drum signaled the break of camp. Twenty thousand men set off to the drum’s deep cadence, along with 10,000 horses and 10,000 beasts of burden. Barth described the scene:

. . . the heavy cavalry, clad in thick wadded clothing, others in their coats of mail, with their tin helmets glittering in the sun, and mounted on heavy chargers . . . the light Shuwa horsemen, clad only in a loose shirt and mounted upon their weak, unseemly nags; the self-conceited slaves, decked out gaudily in red bernuses or silken dresses of various colors; the Kanembu spearmen, almost naked, with their large wooden shields, their half-torn aprons round their loins, their barbarous head-dresses, and their bundles of spears; then, in the distance behind, the continuous train of camels and pack-oxen. . . .

The pack animals were burdened with “tents, furniture, and provisions and mounted by the wives and concubines of the different chiefs, well dressed and veiled.” The vizier and the sheikh each brought “a moderate number” of concubines—eight for Haj Beshir, twelve for Umar, all dressed in white burnooses. Four fan-bearers in multicolored attire followed the sheikh, as did shrill musicians. Everyone, wrote Barth, was “full of spirits, and in the expectation of rich booty, pressing onward to the unknown regions toward the southeast.”

The army moved over the countryside like locusts. The courtiers brought their own provisions, but the soldiers were expected to supply themselves and their horses from the fields and livestock they passed. “To the ruin of the country,” noted Barth. Cornfields were stripped, livestock seized.

He and Overweg had neither provisions nor money to buy any, but the sheikh and the vizier kept them well fed, at first: rice boiled with milk, bread and honey, sheep and sorghum. The Germans spent most evenings in intellectual tête-à-tête with the vizier, whose curiosity matched theirs. Haj Beshir’s travels to Egypt and Mecca had enlarged his perspective and excited his interest in foreign matters. “Our conversation at some of these African soirées with the vizier,” wrote Barth, “became sometimes so learned that even Ptolemy with his ‘Mandros oros’ was quoted.” On another evening, “a disputation arose of so scientific a character that it might have silenced all those who scoff at the uncivilized state of the population of these regions.”

They often discussed slavery. Barth urged Haj Beshir to abolish it in favor of agriculture, industry, and trade. The vizier agreed that slave-hunting was a sordid business, but no other commodity paid as well, and Bornu needed the money for European firearms to protect itself against enemies—firearms that were also used, noted Barth, to hunt down and enslave or massacre yet more people. The high profits from slavery also led to a taste for luxuries that could only be sustained by capturing and selling more slaves. “Such is the history of civilization!” wrote Barth acerbically. He concluded that European nations were hypocritical for condemning the slave trade while profiting from the gun trade that fueled it. The vizier offered to end slave-trading in Bornu—though not domestic slavery—if the British government would send Bornu 1,000 muskets and four cannons.

Haj Beshir was one of the two great friends Barth made on his journey (the other was Sidi Ahmed al-Bakkay, the sheikh of Timbuktu). “I repeat that, altogether, he was a most excellent, kind, liberal, and just man,” wrote Barth of Haj Beshir, “and might have done much good to the country if he had been less selfish and more active.”

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