Against the Brahmins
An Interview with Pankaj Mishra
May 19, 2013
May 19, 2013
11 Min read time
Pankaj Mishra has little time for elite bromides about Asia’s glorious rise.
Pankaj Mishra enjoys upsetting the alleged status quo. The 43-year-old Indian writer has become a leading critic of Western imperialism, globalization, and abuses of power among the political and intellectual upper crust. He charges India’s privileged class with manipulating the democratic process for self-preservation and profit. He publicly blasts peers, such as Salman Rushdie, whom he accuses of choosing to “amplify the orthodoxies of political and military elites,” and Niall Ferguson, whom he condemned as a cheerleader of “neo-imperialist wars.”
Born and raised in Northern India, Mishra was expected to join the civil service after graduating from university. Instead he moved to a small village in the Himalayas for five years and wrote literary reviews for the Indian press. In 1995, he published his first book, Butter Chicken in Ludhiana: Travels in Small Town India, a travelogue populated by colorful and diverse characters living at the intersection of globalization and Indian tradition.
Since then, he has written numerous essays, edited an anthology, and published a novel and three books of nonfiction, including last year’s From the Ruins of Empire: The Revolt Against the West and the Remaking of Asia, which was just short-listed for the 2013 Orwell Prize, a prestigious British award for political writing.
In From the Ruins of Empire, Mishra crafts an epic narrative interlinking the lives of three nineteenth-century revolutionary protagonists: the pan-Islamist Jamal al-Din Afghani, Lian Qichao of China, and Bengali writer and Nobel Prize–winner Rabindranath Tagor. Independently, these intellectual upstarts sought to create an empowered Asian identity rising from the humiliation of colonization and Western imperialism. Their attempts left an influential legacy for modern Middle Eastern and Asian communities struggling to achieve political, economic, and intellectual dignity and autonomy in an age of declining and shifting empires.
In this email interview, Mishra discusses modern South Asian identity; the consequences of democracy, modernization, and religious extremism in India; the role and responsibility of intellectuals; and the question of whether global power is shifting from the West to the East.
Wajahat Ali: Reflecting on recent events, could an argument be made that the disastrous Iraq War and the 2008 financial crisis have shifted the axis of power from the United States to rising Asia?
Pankaj Mishra: I don’t think Asians and South Asians have much cause for celebration if power is indeed shifting to the East due to the disastrous blunders of the United States. One still has to ask, whose power? And to whom is it shifting and who in Asia will it eventually benefit? We Asians have shown ourselves very capable of making the same kind of mistakes. I write from Japan, which has its own history of militarism and imperialism, and where the ghost of nationalism is yet to be exorcised. And we know about South Asia’s inability to defuse its toxic nationalisms or provide a degree of social and economic justice to its billion-plus populations.
WA: Your book focuses on late nineteenth-century cosmopolitan intellectuals, such as Jamal al din Afghani, Liang Qichao, and Tagore, who were early resisters to Western imperialism and colonialism. Do their lives and ideas inform and relate to the dissidents of today, such as the protestors in Tahrir Square, the revolutionaries in Syria, or civil society groups in Malaysia?
PM: People like al-Afghani, Liang, and Tagore were responding, in another era of globalization, to the growing predominance of a mode of political economy vindicated by the great power of the West and to the increasing violence and suffering of non-Western societies as they scrambled to organize themselves for life in the new, ruthless world of international relations. They were at the beginning of the process that we now seem more clearly in places like Egypt, Syria, or Malaysia—the formation of unwieldy and unviable nation-states over multicultural mosaics, the invocation of religious-ethnic solidarities (Malaysia), or the creation and eventual collapse of pro-Western military dictatorships (Egypt) to sustain and legitimize the rule of local elites. I think al-Afghani in 1890s Iran or Liang in early nineteenth-century imperial China would have recognized the daunting backdrop to ordinary struggles for freedom and dignity today—the general political fragmentation, the loss of the state’s legitimacy everywhere, and the rise of transnational elites who owe primary allegiance to themselves.
WA: You’ve been critical of India’s engagement with globalization and modernization, which you say has led to authoritarian populism, xenophobia, and “increased class disparity and anti-minority violence.” How have Indian economic and political policies, which were supposed to create more open and free societies, been used and manipulated for oppression?
PM: I have been trying to argue that we have to look at what specific processes of globalization or modernization amount to in a place like India, rather than accept at face value the ideological claims made for them by Western propagandists and their Eastern counterparts. We can’t keep congratulating ourselves on our democracy if it produces a figure like Narendra Modi and if India is more violent today than it was under British rule. We can’t go on repeating Thomas Friedman’s claims that globalization is flattening the world because it is clear in India that the embrace of global capitalism has led to more cruel inequality. To examine these particular experiences is also to begin to learn what kind of politics and economy work best for our complex societies. It is to move away from neo-imperialist visions of Asia, in which non-Western countries like India are forever competing in a race to Western-style modernity.
WA: Speaking of Indian democracy, you’ve written that India’s “elected representatives act as yet another aggressively self-interested elite,” which is “at least partly to be blamed on the fact that the formal and proceduralist features of democracy—elections—have superseded their substantive aspect: strong, accountable and fair-minded institutions and officials.” As a result, you argue, the growing urban middle class remains marginalized and politically fragmented. How can Indians engage the democratic process in a meaningful manner that actually empowers all, or at least most, of its citizens instead of the elite? If this isn’t possible, then is democracy the best solution for achieving political equality in India?
PM: The answer to the many problems and inadequacies and dangers of democracy, which by the way were diagnosed as early as the 1830s by Tocqueville, should never be less democracy. That was the answer given in many European countries after the First World War, and we know what that led to. In many parts of the world today, ordinary citizens feels disenfranchised by alliances between national politicians and global businessmen. But the answer still isn’t less democracy, or authoritarian populism. We need more democracy in India. Unlike in America, democracy in India has always been attached to the promise of equality, to social and economic justice, to the welfare of the poor and underprivileged caste groups. The real question is: What kind of democracy? One in which politicians use all means available to them—from bribery to demagoguery to violence—to get elected and then disappear from the lives of their voters? Or one in which power is not concentrated at the top, local governments are empowered, and people feel themselves to be citizens as well as voters, able to participate in decision-making that affects their lives. Obviously, the latter, though it is going to difficult to work our way to it. The political elites have very cannily used elections and parliaments as a way of legitimating themselves, and they won’t give up their power easily.
WA: The scars and trauma of British colonization endure for modern South Asians. There is an intense nationalism and contempt for U.S. and British foreign policy, but as you’ve mentioned, a deep desire for acceptance and affirmation by Western powers. Is there hope for a revived, healthy South Asian consciousness and identity?
PM: I don’t want to indulge in pie-in-the-sky scenarios; I don’t see much hope at present for a broader consciousness untainted by neo-imperialist fantasies. The postcolonial world we live in or come from has enjoyed so little genuine autonomy—the space in which to work out its own destiny. There have been so many internal and external pressures—and hierarchies—to overcome. Faced with huge problems of governance, the elites have been scrambling to uphold their own power and legitimacy, a process in which both expedient alliances with and ostentatious distrust of the West play a part. This can change only if we cease to look at the West as our final arbiters and judges. Perhaps the West itself will be disinclined to play these roles as it loses its old power and authority. In the meantime, we will remain solidly West-centric.
WA: Religion in South Asia has been characterized by extremism and intolerance: the Taliban in Pakistan, the Hindu nationalist Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, and the continued prominence of Narendra Modi in India. What should the role of religion be in a purportedly democratic modern South Asia, and can religious extremism be removed from the political theater?
PM: I don’t think so. Your question assumes that religion in modern democracy is an anachronism, one that progressive secularization will eventually mitigate. But this is an idealized view of modern democracy and secularism, not even validated by the United States, where religion plays such a major role in politics. The problem is that religion becomes a basis for identity and community in electoral politics when other forms of association—trade unions, for instance, or peasant groups, or empowered local governments—are weak or nonexistent. So there will always be politicians making appeals to religious solidarity, and there will also be extremists seeking to channel militant disaffection, whether among the poor or, as in Modi’s case, among those in the middle class that consider the poor and religious minorities a nuisance.
The question is whether those opposed to extremists can creatively deploy South Asia’s religious and spiritual traditions in their quest for social and economic justice. The question arises because the old Western language of politics, too identified with the hypocrisy and venality of local elites, doesn’t seem persuasive anymore, even in the West itself. And the old binaries of secularism versus religion or democracy versus theocracy don’t clarify much. We need a fresh vocabulary to both describe our political dilemmas and to seek solutions to them.
WA: Your critiques of Salman Rushdie and Niall Ferguson have generated considerable notoriety. What do you see as the role of a public intellectual?
PM: I think the very fact that we have to ask this question about intellectual responsibility shows how serious the problem has become in our time, and how much of a dodo the unaffiliated intellectual has become. Even writers and intellectuals with a great deal of integrity and courage have become too professionalized, too career-oriented, and too concerned not to upset their peers, not to mention those they regard as their more famous and successful superiors. Many people we think of as intellectuals are basically global professionals, very adept movers in the networks of Oxbridge, the Ivy League, the London School of Economics, think tanks, Davos, and Aspen. They regurgitate, with some embellishments, the wisdom they have picked up there. The result is a stultifying sameness in the intellectual public sphere: loud echo-chambers in which you have a whole class of writers and journalists saying the same things over and over again, people who may not seek proximity to power but who are careful not to provoke its wrath lest they be cast out of the charmed circles they feel they depend on. This professional docility and its codes of omerta are what allow people like Ferguson to flourish. And of course the state’s institutions are always looking for intellectual respectability from historians, sociologists, and journalists.
WA: The Economist has labeled you the “heir to Edward Said.” How do you respond to the comparison?
PM: These kinds of intellectual genealogies are very superficial—sound bites, essentially. I think that the important work of Edward Said—the examination and overcoming of degraded and degrading representations of the non-West—is being carried on by many writers, and it is far from finished. Indeed, it has suffered serious setbacks in the post-9/11 era, which has seen an exponential rise in violence and bigotry, so we need many more people with his intellectual capacity and moral courage to challenge mainstream and conventional ideas and prejudices. I would be very suspicious if anyone was described as his heir by the mainstream press. The description pigeonholes cheaply—even caricatures—and conveniently shifts the responsibility of saying unpopular truths onto a single individual. Now that the quota of non-conformism has been taken care of, the token gestures to dissent made, everyone can return to spouting conventional wisdom.
WA: What’s your opinion, as a literary critic, of current fiction emerging from South Asia?
PM: I actually don’t think of myself as a literary critic, though I do write about literature. I suppose I am interested in how writers of fiction see or understand their world. And in that context I think that a direct experience of political oppression and social dysfunction has made many Pakistani writers in English very alert to the violence and suffering around them. Many Indian writers in comparison have been able to afford greater illusions about their country and its place in the world. This has made Indian journalism very uncritical and much Indian literary fiction in English too bland. There is also the old problem with English in the desi context—how its built-in assumptions of power and privilege preclude much experience of marginality, which is so essential to any creative work.
That said, there is an interesting darkness and ambiguity in the work of young Indian writers in English—both of fiction, and perhaps more emphatically, of nonfiction. South Asian writing in English on the whole is breaking out of its genteel-bourgeois prison; we are hearing more from and about people of different class backgrounds. I have in mind the writings of Basharat Peer, Anjum Hasan, Sonia Faleiro, Tabish Khair, Mirza Waheed, Rana Dasgupta, Rahul Bhattacharya, Aman Sethi, Samanth Subhramanian, Jerry Pinto, Meena Kandasamy, and many others. This literary culture in English is also being enriched by some fine critics, such as Ranjit Hoskote and Chandrahas Chaudhuri.
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May 19, 2013
11 Min read time