Three famous people died in December 2006. Everyone knows what ‘Emperor’ means. But “Satrap”?
The word, which is usually said to be of Latin and Greek origin, actually comes from Sanskrit, via old Persian. The root is “Kshetra Paavana”, which means “region protector”, which is to say, a vassal who oversees a province or area on behalf of an emperor. Ancient empires used satraps to manage far-flung possessions, a tried and tested technique based on an established spoils system. The satrap, or local lord, exercised wide powers over his subjects, unhindered by the Empire in whose name he ruled, so long as he proclaimed fealty to the Emperor, and, of course, forked over a suitable portion of the revenues from his region.
It is, come to think of it, one of the oldest recorded applications of outsourcing. The Greek and Roman empires used it, as evidenced by the word itself. Empires in India did the same: the great Emperor Ashoka (circa 300 BC) was known to have a great many satraps, as did the Moghuls (1526-1707).
So has the practice continued, right down to our times, although the nature and form of the spoils system has evolved. During the Cold War, the West and the Communist bloc’s each had their own set of satraps, turning the world into a checkerboard of allegiances.
When Alexander the Great invaded the Punjab, he faced a local king, Porus, who fought with great valor before being defeated. When Porus was brought before Alexander in chains,the story goes, Alexander mocked him, asking, “how would you like to be treated?” Porus is said to have replied, “Like a king treats a king!” Alexander is said to have been so impressed by his bearing and dignity, not to mention his bravery, that he gave Porus his kingdom back, and made him a satrap. I’ve always wondered how a spirited soul like Porus could come to an accommodation that would leave him a vassal. But then, the swallowing one’s pride at the right time is evidently a time-honored skill essential to both business and statecraft. How many times have we seen proud CEOs of an acquired company mutating into meek heads of departments in the new dispensation; all it took was a few million dollars!
Things might go the other way too. Sometimes, a satrap would get too big for his boots, and develop notions of independence or delusions of grandeur. At other times, satraps would attempt a well judged leap into the arms of another empire, in search of a better deal. The task of an empire, then, became the decapitation of that satrap and installation of a new one. Since this was a lengthy and costly proposition, wise emperors would make sure the vassals were kept in fair humor.
The age of Revolution’s changed this some. Woodrow Wilson’s encouragement of nationality changed it even more. Whereas “Civis Romanus Sum” was once a proud cry, no local ruler could retain bolster the self-respect of his people any longer by open fealty to an outside empire. Subtler ways were needed. Nothing was more vexatious than democracy, where, by definition, there could be multiple opinions, even on which Empire to align with. Far easier to foster a dictatorship as with the old satrapy, where keeping the local ruler in power was all it took to retain allegiance. As a corollary, the more emasculated the people, the less effort required to maintaining the satrapy.
History will note that two former satraps of America, in two different hemispheres, died at the end of 2006. Both ran regimes that, everyone agrees, perpetrated untold numbers of crimes — murders and disappearances, torture and rape.
One was sought by half-a-dozen countries for many years, yet escaped prosecution for “crimes against humanity”, partially with the help of United States. He died of natural causes, before he could be tried, having used every artifice to avoid the certain prospect of the noose.
The other, was hunted down and captured by the United States, and kept in its custody for three years. He was tried, after a fashion, in circumstances that would hardly be called dispassionate by any Western standard. A sentence of death handed down, for “crimes against humanity”. Following an appeals process that was over almost before it started, he was executed by hanging. Saddam Hussein mounted the gallows saying that he was not afraid, for this was the path he had chosen.
Less and less fazed by irony with each passing day, America lionized Pinochet, upon his death, as a visionary responsible for Chile’s resurgence. In Saddam Hussein’s case, it welcomed his execution as a vindication of the judicial process. All this, too, while simultaneously heaping praise upon the recently departed President Ford for pardoning President Nixon in advance, thereby sparing the nation the agony of the selfsame judicial process!
It is testament to our public diplomacy that women in India, of all places, have vowed to name their newborn sons “Saddam”.
Perhaps it is written that he who rises by a hanging (Chad) will fall by a hanging. Sad.