May 5, 2007
The Independent

Mutiny! The Uprising That Shook the World

by William Dalrymple

On the evening of Sunday 10 May 1857, 150 years ago next week, 300 mutinous sepoys from Meerut rose up against their officers. They shot as many as they could, then rode through the night to the old Mughal capital of Delhi, where there they massacred every Christian man, woman and child, and declared the 82-year-old Mughal Emperor, Bahadur Shah Zafar, to be their leader. . . .

The violent suppression of the Great Uprising of 1857 was a pivotal moment in the history of British imperialism in India. It marked the end both of the East India Company and of the Mughal dynasty, the two principal forces that shaped Indian history over the previous 300 years, and replaced both with undisguised imperial rule by the British government.

Shortly after Zafar's corpse had been tipped in its anonymous Burmese grave, Queen Victoria accepted the title Empress of India from Disraeli, initiating a very different period of direct imperial rule.

Yet in many ways the legacy of the period is still with us, and there is a direct link between the jihadis of 1857 and those we face today. For the reaction of the Delhi ulema after 1857 was to reject both the gentle Sufi traditions of the late Mughal emperors, who they regarded as apostate, and the West; instead they too attempted to return to what they regarded as pure Islamic roots.

With this in mind, disillusioned refugees from Delhi founded a Wahhabi-like madrasa at Deoband which went back to Koranic basics and rigorously stripped out anything European from the curriculum.

One hundred and forty years later, it was out of Deobandi madrasas in Pakistan that the Taliban emerged to create the most retrograde Islamic regime in modern history, a regime that in turn provided the crucible out from which emerged al- Qa'ida, and the most radical fundamentalist Islamic counterattack the modern West has yet had to face.

Today, West and East again face each other uneasily across a divide that many see as a religious war. Suicide jihadis fight what they see as a defensive action against their Christian enemies, and again innocent civilians are slaughtered.

As before, Western Evangelical politicians are apt to cast their opponents and enemies in the role of "incarnate fiends" and simplistically conflate armed resistance to invasion and occupation with "pure evil." Again, Western countries, blind to the effect their foreign policies have on the wider world, feel aggrieved and surprised to be attacked - as they see it - by mindless fanatics.

Yet as we have seen in our own time, nothing so easily radicalises a people against us, or undermines the moderate aspect of Islam, as aggressive Western intrusion in the East: the histories of Islamic fundamentalism and Western imperialism have often been closely, and dangerously, intertwined.

There are clear lessons here. For, in the celebrated words of Edmund Burke - himself a fierce critic of British aggression in India - those who fail to learn from history are always destined to repeat it.


William Dalrymple's The Last Mughal: The Fall of a Dynasty, Delhi 1857, which won the 2007 Duff Cooper Prize for History and Biography, has just been published in paperback.

John Pilger, "The Warlords of America," New Statesman, August 23, 2004

Robert Fisk, "Bush's New Strategy - The March of Folly," Independent, January 11, 2007

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