Historical Notes; Men one cannot do business with

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SADDAM HUSSEIN is the Great Satan of the 1990s, the demon to be tamed, the one who every so often rises again in the West's consciousness to be denounced, to be put in place. But isn't he the man who once was the West's bulwark against Iranian revolutionary expansionism and other such unthinkables? The man who, even though he murdered uncounted thousands of Iraqis, was defended as a safe pair of hands by Washington and its allies? Yes, that's the man. Only he wasn't a demon then, he was "one of ours". He went and ruined it all when he invaded Kuwait. Not because he invaded, but because he threatened commercial interests - oil and the shipping lanes of the Gulf could not be allowed to remain in the hands of someone who might not heed sound commercial advice, someone who might even interfere with the vast profits still to be made in that part of the world.

All this is nothing new - ever since commerce became the defining factor in European affairs, inconvenient economic obstacles have been prime targets for demonisation. Take the case of Tipu Sultan, ruler of the Indian kingdom of Mysore back in the late 18th century (1783-1799). Tipu's accession to the throne had been greeted with sighs of relief at the East India Company headquarters and in the British press. Tipu, those worthy institutions declared, was a man they could do business with. But like Saddam, Tipu wasn't as "pure" as he was being made out to be, even by the low standards of the British. Some former captives of his (British, naturally, none other counted) were already complaining that he had "mistreated" them. The British press ignored the whingeing and concentrated on the benefits. Tipu, readers were reminded, was subduing other powers who stood in the way of "free and unfettered trade" (exploitation, really) by the East India Company. But then Tipu turned and declared his opposition to sharing his patch with the interloper, money-grubbing British. The English press was aghast - he dared oppose trade? He dared oppose them, their representative, the East India Company? Suddenly reports flooded in of atrocities in Tipu's kingdom, of his insanity, his cruelty. This man is a threat to all the region, the commentators shrieked, this man is an evil Eastern tyrant! The company's purpose was served, its military campaign against Tipu became a moral crusade.

The similarities do not end there: Tipu defeated was, like Saddam, "contained". The company left him in control of a rump of his territory, extracting tribute from him and taking his sons hostage. And every now and then, when he challenged it to another war, it gladly fought back as every battle provided more cover for it to spread its tentacles deeper into the surrounding countryside, taking all over for profit. By the time Tipu finally died in battle, his place in colonial history as the bogeyman evil Eastern despot was assured - even though his real "crime" had been to threaten the East India Company's revenues.

Today the East India Company's interests have been replaced by those of the omnipotent multinational companies, and the excuse of "the need to bring good governance to savages" by "the need to protect democracy and the New World Order". Has anything changed? Not really, we're just playing around with words. And while we do, spare a thought for the people in Iraq and under other "acceptables" in Kosovo, in Nigeria, elsewhere. Their rulers will only face "our" wrath if "our" profits are at stake. Only then, and only for that.

Amal Chatterjee is the author of `Representations of India, 1740-1840' (Macmillan, pounds 42.50) and `Across the Lakes' (Phoenix House, pounds 9.99)