A neocon primer: Regime change in 18th-century India

Does this sound familiar? A Western-hatched plot to oust a Muslim dictator on bogus charges...

Published April 13, 2007 8:56PM (EDT)

From William Dalrymple's fascinating review of two books about the British in India, in the April 26 edition of The New York Review of Books:

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 neocons. The cynical 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 perfected by the late eighteenth century. Sometimes the similarities are almost uncanny. By the end of the 1790s, the hard-liners who were calling for regime change found that they now had a president who was not prepeared 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 unrivaled global power. It was best, he believed, preemptively to remove hostile Muslim regimes that presumed to resist the West

The first to be targeted was a Muslim dictator who had usurped power in a military coup. According to misleading British sources, this focus of anti-Western opposition was a "furious fantatic," who had "perpetually on his tongue the projects of Jihad." He was also deemed to be "opressesive and unjust, [and a] perfidious negociator." Yet in this case, the dictator was not Saddam but Tipu, sultan of Mysore, and the president, Henry Dundas, the president of Parliament's Board of Control. In 1798 Dundas sent Richard Wellesley to India with instructions to replace Tipu with a Western-backed puppet prince. Mysore was duly invaded and Tipu was killed in the lucrative war of 1799.

Tipu Sultan, the Tiger of Mysore, has appeared in the pages of How the World Works before, primarily as a vehicle for understanding linguistic and ethnic politics in contemporary India, but also as a reflection of British racism. To see him pop up as a metaphor for neoconservative neocolonialism was an unexpected delight.

But hardly the only taste to savor in Dalrymple's authoritative essay. His article is the kind of book review during which, about a third of the way through, the reader realizes that the books that must be read immediately are those that have been written by the reviewer, and not the unhappy subjects of his keen intelligence. This impulse was only confimed by Dalrymple's closing paragraphs.

...In 1600, when the East India Company was founded, Britain was generating 1.8 percent of the world's GDP while India was producing 22.5 percent. By 1870, at the peak of the Raj, Britain was generating 9.1 percent, while India had been reduced a poor third-world nation, a symbol across the globe of famine and deprivation.

Today, things are slowly returning to their traditional pattern. Last year the richest man in the UK was for the first time an ethnic Indian, Lakshmi Mittal, and last month news has come that Britain's largest steel manufacturer, Corus, has jsut been brought by Tata, an Indian company. Extraordinary as it is, the rise of India and China, seen from the wider perspective, is merely the rebalancing of the ancient equilibirum of world trade, with Europeans no longer appearing as gun-toting, gunboat-riding colonial masters but instead reverting to their traditional role -- eager consumers of the much-celebreated manufactures, luxuries, and services of the East.

And so I await a knock on the door from the FedEx man, who should be delivering to me a copy of William Dalrymple's "The Last Mughal: The Fall of a Dynasty: Delhi, 1857," any second.

By Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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Globalization How The World Works India Neoconservatism