2008 07 28
Recently read: Dalrymple’s The Last Mughal

Posted by in: Books, History, India

William Dalrymple. The Last Mughal: The Fall of a Dynasty: Delhi, 1857

The Mughal Empire in Northern India lasted several hundred years, but the final century saw a steep decline in its political fortunes. Although officially the British East India Company still served the Mughal Empire in the year 1857, collecting taxes and administering territory on its behalf, by that time the pretense of service had been almost entirely dispensed with. Still, the arrangement allowed the Mughal Emperor, Bahadur Shah Zafar II, free to occupy his time composing poetry, practicing calligraphy, assembling a highly sophisticated and learned court, and trying, apparently against the odds, to stop other men from knocking up various members of his harem.

As the British consolidated power in India over the first half of the 19th century, their arrogance grew. Whereas an earlier generation of British traders and adventurers had been more ready to adopt local practices and customs, to intermarry, and even in some cases, to convert, by the time of the so-called mutiny of 1857, the British were increasingly distant from, and contemptuous of, the people they had come to live among on the subcontinent.

The mutiny of 1857 began within the private army of the British East India Company. The Company had recently changed the type of firearm carried by the sepoys, the privates in its employ. These were more accurate than the older kind of firearm, but the barrels required more lubrication. With a nearly total disregard for the sensitivities of the high-caste Hindus who made up much of its fighting force, or for the many Muslims who comprised the rest, the company distributed casings which used grease rumoured (accurately, it seems, at least at first) to be made from a mixture of cow fat and pig fat. This piece of stupidity came at the worst time, as the mood within and without the army had already been soured by a variety of recent British insensitivities, and especially by a new wave of British evangelists, eager to win converts among both the army and the civilian population.

The revolt began in Meerut, close to Delhi, and then spread over much of the subcontinent. But it was to Delhi that many of the rebels rallied, since they saw in the octogenarian Zafar a chance to restore the great Mughal Empire while giving the boot to the British. The rebels swept over the British, taking them quite by surprise, and massacring men, women and children who were unable to escape. In Delhi especially, there was a strong religious dimension to the killing, as the rebels tended to spare the British who had converted. It became the most significant uprising faced by any Western colonial power anywhere in the world in the entire nineteenth century.

Zafar hardly knew what to make of the mess. He was 82, indecisive, comfortable, and most alarmed by the undisciplined chaos that the rebels were causing in Delhi. But the British had recently informed him, against his entreaties, that he was to be the last of his line, unable to appoint a successor, as was technically his right. And he suspected, probably correctly, that the rebels would kill him if he didn’t agree to lead them. And so he did, in a manner of speaking.

The British besieged Delhi with a small force, but then quickly found themselves besieged by the much larger force pouring into the city from across Northern India. These numbers were swelled not just by troops formerly in the employ of the British East India Company, but also by Jihadis, looking to expel the Christians from the humbled Muslim kingdom. This made for a formidable opponent for the British, but hardly a unified one. The fundamentalism of the jihadis clashed with the gentle, open-minded Islam of the Mughal Court, and also with many of the Hindu sepoys alongside whom they fought. As the siege progressed, communal and social tensions ate away at the fabric of Delhi society.

In the end, the British won. But it was hardly a foregone conclusion, and there were a number of points at which they might have lost, or at least suffered significant set-backs. When they finally took Delhi, their revenge was absolutely savage. Untrue stories of the rape of British women during the revolt which had circulated for the duration of the siege were apparently inspiration for a number of incidents of rape during the capture of the city. Men, women, and children were massacred, and the women and children who were spared after seeing their husbands and children shot were robbed and expelled, often to die of disease as they searched unsuccessfully for refuge in areas surrounding Delhi. Most of the British were very pleased by all of this, considering the punishment in religious terms as something akin to divine wrath.

William Dalrymple’s The Last Mughal is historical writing at its best. Dalrymple somehow manages to combine incisive character sketches of the central figures, grand historical narrative, and sharp moral judgment. He knows the archives well, reads a number of source languages fluently, and has a keen eye for the telling detail. This is a fascinating story with a great deal to tell us about the nature of colonialism, about human beings, and the justifications they offer for the wrongs they do. Before this book, I had never read a book about Indian history. Dalrymple has me excited to read more, and especially to read more of his own books.

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2007 11 04
Pakistan and India

Lots of talk this morning about Musharraf’s decision to declare a state of emergency. The focus in the U.S. is understandably on just how fucked the U.S. is here. But I’d like to take this moment to remind people how totally fucked India is. India’s decision to go nuclear always looked dumb, since prior to going nuclear it already had a balance of conventional power on the subcontinent. Going nuclear forced Pakistan to go nuclear, which had the effect of evening things out somewhat between the countries. But now that Pakistan is teetering on the brink of – what? A coup of some sort perhaps? Some other kind of disintegration? – whatever it’s on the brink of, India has to sit and watch and wonder who will be next to take over this unstable power, which has nuclear weapons in part because of India’s incredibly stupid adventures in strategery. Nice!

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2007 02 26

An ill Matthew Yglesias confesses he doesn’t know how exactly the U.S. ought to conduct itself with respect to Pakistan. Bradford Plumer has a nice summary of the problem (click through for the hyperlinks):

Most policymakers and pundits don’t seem to know how to deal with Pakistan. (I certainly don’t.) On the one hand, the United States wants Musharraf to be more aggressive about hunting down Al Qaeda operatives in North Waziristan. On the other hand, moving too aggressively against that part of the country might cause Musharraf’s government to collapse, in which case radical Islamists could seize power–and with it, control of Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal. Scary stuff.

Plumer then wonders:

At any rate, I’m curious to know what sort of safeguards Pakistan has in place to prevent its nukes from falling in the wrong hands, should, say, Taliban sympathizers in the intelligence services stage a coup (or whatever). The reporting on this front appears patchy. In 2004, Graham Allison warned that the security measures were still much too flimsy, and wanted the United States and China to do a thorough review of Pakistan’s nuclear stockpile, in order to help Musharraf set up proper controls. That would involve a lot of delicate diplomacy–especially since Pakistan is understandably reluctant to open its arsenal up to outside inspection–but it doesn’t seem completely undoable.

So what’s actually being done? A Congressional Research Service report in 2005 noted that the United States was offering some assistance, but mostly to “focus on helping secure nuclear materials and providing employment for personnel, rather than on security of nuclear weapons.” See also here. And last August, Pakistan declared that it had set up a “tri-command nuclear force,” but it’s not clear whether that would safeguard the weapons in the event of a coup. (In any case, the country’s past assurances on this score have been fairly suspect.) Those seem to be the main media stories of late. Who knows, perhaps the administration really is doing all it can here, but I’d sort of like to see a closer investigation.

There’s also the possibility of war with rival-nuclear-power-India to worry about. As for solutions, I too am stumped by the larger problem of how to deal with a nuclear power struggling with militants, rogue intelligence services, and hostilities with a nuclear neighbour. My modest suggestion of the day is that if I were in charge of U.S. foreign policy, I would have made a resolution of the Kashmir dispute a very high priority around 2002 (when things got very heated for a while between India and Pakistan), if I hadn’t already.

Obviously Kashmir is a tricky issue, but it’s not an impossible one. Constructive and careful intervention by an outside party might well make real progress on the issue, perhaps even leading to a solution that most of the parties could live with. This would be valuable for two reasons. First, one thing people are always forgetting is just how radicalizing the issue of Kashmir is within Pakistan. If you care about the issue of Islamic radicals in Pakistan – and you really ought to care – then you should be very interested in steps that might remove a major cause around which militants in the country have tended to rally. Second, obviously, a resolution of (or even progress on) the Kashmir dispute would significantly reduce the probability of a nuclear exchange on the subcontinent, an exchange that would be disastrous for the entire world’s environment and leave millions dead and dying.

Anyway, all this is just to say that I’ve spent the last few years wondering why this isn’t a very big priority for people whose opinions matter.

Howls of outrage (4)

2005 07 19
U.S., India May Share Nuclear Technology

This is just baffling. The story gets at some of the administration’s motivation – which is fine as far as it goes – but the move seems so short-sighted and so at odds with the rest of the adminstration’s aims and policies that I can hardly believe the story is accurate.

President Bush agreed yesterday to share civilian nuclear technology with India, reversing decades of U.S. policies designed to discourage countries from developing nuclear weapons.

The agreement between Bush and Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, which must win the approval of Congress, would create a major exception to the U.S. prohibition of nuclear assistance to any country that doesn’t accept international monitoring of all of its nuclear facilities. India has not signed the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, which requires such oversight, and conducted its first nuclear detonation in 1974.

Participants in the discussions said there had been debate within the administration about whether the deal with India — which built its atomic arsenal in secret — would undercut U.S. efforts to confront Iran and North Korea over their nuclear programs. There were also concerns about how the agreement would be accepted in Pakistan, India’s regional rival and an ally in the U.S. campaign against al Qaeda.

But supporters of the approach said it was an important part of a White House strategy to accelerate New Delhi’s rise as a global power and as a regional counterweight to China. As part of the strategy, the administration is also seeking ways to bolster Japan’s posture in the region.

[. . . ]

Under the terms of the deal, India agreed to place its civilian nuclear facilities — but not its nuclear weapons arsenal — under international monitoring and pledged to continue to honor a ban on nuclear testing. In return, it would have access, for the first time, to conventional weapons systems and to sensitive U.S. nuclear technology that can be used in either a civilian or a military program. It could also free India to buy the long-sought-after Arrow Missile System developed by Israel with U.S. technology.

The agreement does not call for India to cease production of weapons-grade plutonium, which enables India to expand its nuclear arsenal.

[. . .]

The White House faces two major hurdles to put the deal into effect. One is altering rules in the Nuclear Suppliers Group, a consortium of more than 40 countries that controls export of nuclear technology. The group has been unreceptive to previous Bush administration initiatives and will be reluctant to create country-specific rules, said George Perkovich, a nuclear specialist at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

The other challenge will be persuading Congress to change the U.S. Nonproliferation Act, which prevents sales of sensitive nuclear technology to countries that refuse monitoring of nuclear facilities.

Rep. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.) condemned the agreement as a “dangerous proposition and bad nonproliferation policy” and said he will introduce legislation to block it. “We cannot play favorites, breaking the rules of the nonproliferation treaty, to favor one nation at the risk of undermining critical international treaties on nuclear weapons,” he said in a statement. “What will Russia say when they want to supply more nuclear materials or technology to Iran? You can be sure that Pakistan will demand equal treatment.”

Jesus. Can this really be as stupid as it looks?

Howls of outrage (6)

2004 12 03
Bhopal, an update

It seems that Dow has finally accepted responsibility for the disaster. More details if I see them. Pile on in the comments if you know anything more.

Update: Nope. Sorry. It’s a hoax. Should have known that it was too good to be true.

A single voice crying in the wilderness (1)

2004 11 29
Amnesty International on Bhopal

Posted by in: India, Political issues

After all these years:

India: Bhopal – human rights in toxic shock

Twenty years on the Bhopal plant continues to ruin the lives of the surrounding communities. The effects of the leak and the contaminated environment continue seriously to affect people’s basic human rights. A report by Amnesty International shows how companies and governments are evading their human rights responsibilities, and underlines the need for universal human rights standards for businesses.
. . .
Astonishingly, no-one has been held to account for the toxic leak and its appalling consequences — over 20,000 people have died and 100,000 people are living with chronic illnesses. Dow and UCC both deny legal responsibility, with UCC refusing to appear before Indian courts to face trial.

UCC has tried to shift responsibility onto Union Carbide India Ltd (UCIL), claiming it had no control over its Indian subsidiary. In fact, UCC owned 50.9% of UCIL and maintained a high degree of corporate, managerial, technical and operational control over it, and was in a position to prevent the disaster.
. . .
The report explains how:

– UCC stored ultra-hazardous chemicals in bulk; failed to set up an emergency plan to warn local residents; ignored warnings about the possibility of a chemical reaction similar to that which caused the leak and withheld information critical to the medical treatment of the victims.

– The Indian authorities failed to adequately protect their citizens both before and after the disaster. Officials were aware that the plant used hazardous materials but Amnesty International has been unable to find any evidence that either the state or central government took adequate steps to assess the risks to the local community. Without consulting the victims, the Indian government agreed a modest financial settlement with UCC and cleared the company from legal liability.

– Human rights have been violated on a massive scale, including people’s rights to life and health. A framework based on the UN Norms for Business could be used to hold companies accountable for their human rights impact.

The effects of the leak and the insufficient compensation — along with other government failings — are felt every day by the survivors. Many are unable to earn a living, have families, or even get hold of medicine to treat their conditions. Parvati Bai, 70, is ill and far too weak to work. Her husband died a few months after the gas leak. Her only source of income is the 150 Rupees (US$3.30) she receives each month as a pension. “That is not enough even to buy myself some food,” she said. “Some day I will die and the Municipal Corporation will just take my body away. That will be the end.”

Amnesty International is urging people around the world to write to Dow demanding it cleans up the site.

More here.

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2004 10 01
Musharraf on Kashmir

From the Hindustan Times:

Returning home after nearly two weeks of foreign tour, President Pervez Musharraf has said he had asked the western countries to facilitate a solution to the Kashmir issue which India and Pakistan were trying to resolve bilaterally.

Musharraf said that during his visit to the US, the Netherlands and Italy he tried to prevail on the western leaders to resolve the West Asia crisis and facilitate a solution to the Kashmir issue.

“I am pressing them that …you have to resolve political disputes. I told them that you must resolve the West Asia issue and we are trying to resolve Kashmir dispute on our own, you should facilitate that,” he told Pakistani media persons onboard a plane while returning home on Thursday night.

I won’t deny that this dispute is one tough nut to crack. But I suspect that it is crackable with constructive, balanced, and determined outside help. And, as I’ve said several times now, progress on this dispute would bring a substantial payoff.

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2004 09 25
Singh and Musharaff . . .

. . . sittin’ in a tree. . .

OK, not quite, but it is very encouraging to hear that the leaders of two hostile nuclear powers have managed to stage (in some sense of the word) a friendly meeting. Now, a sensible Kofi Annan, a sensible European Union, a sensible U.S. president, etc. etc. etc. would seize this moment and try to build on it. As far as I can tell, the Kashmir dispute is a) very dangerous to have festering; b) difficult for the parties to solve without outside help; c) possible to solve with outside help, since there is a genuine willingness on both sides to resolve the issue, in spite of all the obstacles.

Pakistan is a very troubled society, and the Kashmir dispute is an important part of the story. Sorry to keep going on about this, but it really is in everyone’s interests to make some progress on this issue . . .

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2004 09 10
A brief point about Kashmir

Gosh, if I set the global foreign policy agenda I would make a resolution of the Kashmir dispute a very high priority. Tension over Kashmir is not just dangerous in itself – it is after all tension between two nuclear powers – it also has a seriously corrosive effect on Pakistan, a country which can hardly afford the luxury of corrosion at the moment. It seems to me that there is no hope of breaking the deadlock that that ISI (Pakistan’s superduper powerful version of the CIA) has on Pakistan’s politics so long as the country is embroiled in a conflict with India. What’s more, so long as Kashmir remains in dispute there isn’t much hope of breaking the link between the ISI and militant Islamic groups, since those groups have considerable value to Pakistan as proxies in Kashmir. And those militant Islamic groups – well, call me crazy, but I’d keep an eye on them.

There’s only so much an outsider can do. And this is a very longstanding conflict, not something that the U.S. (or anyone else) can just sweep in and fix. But there are priorities and there are priorities. And this would go near the very top of the my list, whether my name was George W. Bush or Kofi Annan or whatever. It’s a pity the issue doesn’t get much attention (except briefly when the two countries start nuclear sabre-rattling, but then outside involvement seems limited to damage control rather than actual conflict-resolution).

Howls of outrage (4)

2004 06 04
Two Questions before Supper

A friend and former roommate of ours is visiting from out of town. He is a jazz trombonist and a professional chef. We’ve planned his visit to maximize the benefits from his various talents. The first part of his visit was spent in the recording studio with my wife and a few of her friends; tonight we move on to feasting. I leave you with two random questions while I stuff my fat face for a few hours.

First: Is Saddam Hussein being treated in accordance with the Geneva Conventions? I’ve heard scarcely a peep about him since his capture. I ask not because (I blush to confess) I’m especially anxious to see him well-treated, but because I am anxious to see a case against him untainted by accusations that the U.S. has departed from international law. I’m a stickler for that kind of thing, even in what is pretty obviously a limit case. I confess, I’m also just very curious for details about his present state of mind. What the hell is it like to be an all powerful psychopath writing romance novels and killing people one day, and then cast helplessly into prison by the people you hate the most the next? Pretty odd, I’m guessing.

Second: Wither Kashmir? It seems that we only ever talk about Kashmir when Pakistan and India start rattling sabres. Why not earlier? Indeed, I have the impression that I’m more terrified than most people of a nuclear war on the subcontinent at some point in my lifetime. But that’s their problem – the feeling of terror is entirely appropriate on this issue.

If I were Prez, I would make a settlement of Kashmir a top priority of my foreign policy. Kashmir may be a depressing mess, but it’s not an impossible one. Resolving the dispute over Kashmir would do more than remove the greatest (but, of course, not the only) irritant between two nuclear powers with a history of military conflict. It would also be a crucial step towards the constructive reordering of Pakistan’s political culture. The dispute over Kashmir has the inevitable effect of strengthening the position of the military and the ISI (Pakistan’s intelligence agency) within Pakistan’s political system. Resolving the dispute would therefore be one step in diminishing the dominance of these forces within it (which is one reason you can expect strong ambivalence from that quarter about any proposed resolution). And, of course, helping Pakistan to reorder itself politically is one of the most important steps in the struggle against Islamic radicalism.

Later. I’ma gonna get fat now.

Update: Gosh, I’m such a blowhard. Two minutes after posting this, I notice that India’s Exernal Affairs minister has ruled out third-party mediation. Of course that doesn’t mean that third-parties can’t play a construct role at the margins, especially if things break down again completely. Also, I didn’t mean to suggest that the third party has to be an American one. The Americans – I can’t help noticing – appear to have their hands full.

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2003 10 14
[India and Pakistan]

Remember when things got a bit hot between Pakistan and India in the fall of 2001 (and onwards)? Many sensible people pointed out at the time that the dispute over Kashmir called for international mediation. Although quite serious, the dispute may not be intractible, and anyway, the consequences of a miscalculation between the two powers should be enough to get anyone’s attention.

In the meantime, though, no one has dealt seriously with the problem. Despite the occasional hopeful signs of thaw between the countries, no serious progress has been made in resolving the underlying causes of tension. Now things may be heating up again. I notice, for instance, that Pakistan has apparently stepped up its missile testing recently.

I think we may all look back at this and wish that the U.S. had turned its attention to the subcontinent instead of Iraq. A joint focus on settling the Kashmir dispute and encouraging the spread of civil society in Pakistan would have done more to hurt bin Laden’s recruitment than anything else they could have done. And let’s hope that by the time the threat between these two countries is appreciated, our appreciation isn’t being prompted by a mushroom cloud.

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2003 04 06
India and Pakistan

I like to think that my opposition to the war never depended on downplaying the threat from Iraq. Iraq did want nuclear weapons, and, armed with them, would have threatened more than oil (the Kurds, for example, or Israel). The problem with arguments stressing the danger from Iraq is that, even setting aside moral concerns about preventative war, showing that Iraq is potentially very dangerous doesn’t, by itself, suggest a response. To know how to respond, we need to know how dangerous it is compared with other threats, and supporters of the war were never able to muster a convincing argument that placed concern about Iraq within broader concerns about the proliferation of nuclear weapons. Invading Iraq might eliminate a potential nuclear threat, but if the cost of doing so is to spark an arms race, or spur proliferation more broadly, it’s at odds with prudence as well as morality.

Alas, few on the Asian subcontinent have been content over the last year to sit tight and wait for the U.S.’s attention – and we should be clear that the U.S.’s attention desperately needed here . India and Pakistan, never particularly responsible with conventional military force, have for the last few years been playing an infinitely more troubling game of threats and bluster with their new nuclear arsenals. Nobody wants a nuclear war, of course, but the worry is that the players will miscalculate and bring it on in spite of themselves. The players here have an awful record when it comes to calculation (something which this story put me in mind of).

Does anyone really want to wager 10 millions lives (and, incidentally, the global economy) on the good judgement and maturity of the leadership of these countries?

Ask the Bush administration. They’ve put the issue on hold while they deal with Iraq.

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