Pankaj Mishra’s new book, From the Ruins of Empire, which challenges Western narratives of the ‘white man’s burden’, has been raising hackles in the West and in India. Such reactions are pointers to an existing imbalance in cultural and political power, he tells Tabish Khair. Excerpts from a conversation.
Pankaj Mishra is not a stranger to controversy, but his new book, From the Ruins of Empire, has been met with a barrage of criticism, implicit and explicit, from not just right-wing circles in the West but also from some British authors who cannot be described as right wing. Of course, there have been very positive reviews too: Piers Brendon’s review in the Literary Review states that the book “incisively anatomizes what Orwell called the ‘slimy humbug’ of the white man’s burden”. In another review, John Gray bestows unstinted praise on the book as “an assault on false consciousness and self-deception in both east and west”. On the other hand, right-wing and conservative reviewers have attacked the book for being a ‘polemic’ and not seeing the (mostly) ‘good sides’ of the British Empire. One complex example of this reaction was provided by the historian Dominic Sandbrook, who reviewed it for the Sunday Times: Sandbrook is known for his belief that the British Empire was a ‘beacon for tolerance, decency, and the rule of law’. More interestingly, the British novelist, Philip Hensher, who cannot be considered politically right-wing, was also evidently upset by the book: in the Spectator, he dubbed it ‘disappointingly blinkered’. Among other things, Hensher critiqued Mishra’s account of the Jallianwala Bagh massacre for underplaying British fair-handedness (because, after all, the British officer in charge “was suspended”) and accused him of being soft on Chairman Mao.
In your new book, From the Ruins of Empire, you discuss people like Al Afghani, who are considered by many to be the intellectual progenitors of today’s Islamism. How can you justify that?
I think there is no reason for us to bring to Islamism or political Islam the fear and ignorance of Western commentators and their hysterical vocabulary. Islamism itself is such a broad and nearly meaningless word as used by the mainstream Western press, including everything from Turkey’s AKP party to al Qaeda. Al-Afghani was a very complex figure, who manifested many political tendencies — from pan-Islamism to Hindu-Muslim unity — we saw later in South Asia and West Asia. And his disciples ranged from Saad Zaghlul, the Egyptian nationalist, James Sanua, the Jewish playwright, to Rashid Rida, the inspiration for the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. My book shows, too, how overtly Islamic movements grew under the lash of European imperialism, which made the more liberal and secular forms of anti-colonial nationalism look impotent.
But then, can’t this also be said of what is now known as Hindutva in India as a broad movement with similar 19th century roots?
Up to a point, but then we can't claim Aurobindo, who I quote at some length in my book, as the predecessor of Praveen Togadia. There is a huge difference between the anti-colonial nationalism of 19th century Hindu activists and thinkers and the business-friendly Chief Minister of Gujarat who desperately wants a visa to the U.S. I think there is a serious problem with the history of ideas, which I have tried to avoid, when it starts connecting apparently similar movements and ideologies without regard to specific political contexts.
I am struck by the responses to your book in the British right-wing press, all of which describe you as a mere ‘polemicist’. They also see your book as a response to Niall Ferguson, though obviously you conceived and wrote it long before your piece on him appeared.
I am actually relieved to see these kinds of responses, because they accurately reflect the GREAT imbalance of power in the intellectual as well as political realm — what the Asian voices in my book describe and protest against. For a long time, Western histories simply suppressed non-western perspectives — nobody cared what the ‘native’ thought. But even today, the benignly universalist West creates the standards of judgement, and the historian at the imperial metropole of course writes the truly objective and coolly rational history. And the non-westerner challenging it with other perspectives is prone to be described — and discredited — as no more than a polemicist (The word is usual preceded by a damning adjective like ‘left-wing’ and ‘angry’). In this ‘universalist’ and ‘cosmopolitan’ perspective from the West, the parochial-minded native always responds and reacts, he doesn’t initiate anything or have original thoughts, let alone a history, of his own. But, you know, it is getting too late for this kind of ideological trickery.
Which brings us to your famous differences with Niall Ferguson and the clash of civilisations thesis…
I think subsuming political and economic conflicts into some grand ‘clash of civilisations’ theory or ‘the west versus the rest’ binary is a particularly insidious form of ideological deception. By loudly invoking religion and culture and race, these Western pundits want to prevent us from examining the material basis of global inequality in all matters, intellectual as well as economic — the long history behind the fact that some countries are rich, many others permanently poor; why some forms of large-scale violence, such as neo-imperialism, enjoy moral sanction and respectability, and those opposed to them prone to be dismissed as left-wing crackpots and losers. I think the neo-imperialists and their sympathisers are best seen as a symptom of Anglo-America’s bizarre political culture of the previous two decades — a culture in which politicians supported by an unquestioning corporate media wage genocidal wars while feeding lies to their electorates, crooked bankers give themselves huge salaries and bonuses, and intellectuals — well, many of them turn to justifying and vindicating this shameful state of affairs and are given bully pulpits for this purpose at mainstream institutions like Harvard and the BBC.
That might explain why you have many harsh critics in Western circles. But why is it that you also seem to raise hackles in some Indian circles?
I am hardly the only writer to be attacked. Anyone questioning delusionary narratives such as ‘India Rising’ is likely to be denounced as a bitter JNU jholawalla, and critiques of the appalling human rights situation in Kashmir gets you stigmatised as an ‘India-hater’. Our journalistic and intellectual culture in two decades of economic liberalisation has manifested a growing intolerance for real dissent and a deference to power and wealth — and a pathetic desperation to stand with and be counted among the apparent winners of history. In that sense, we have closely followed recent trends in the West, though we also seem to have replicated in India some of the intellectual pathologies that Tagore witnessed in the ‘rising’ nation-state of Japan.
You often take a combative political stand, but you have also written a book that is partly a biography of Buddha, An End to Suffering. Why Buddha?
He struck me as a very profound thinker, perhaps the greatest the subcontinent has produced, someone who stood well out of the mainstream of classical Indian thought, and was also astonishingly modern in his diagnosis of the human condition. He was particularly trenchant about the concept of the self-directed, self-seeking autonomous individual — something that in our own era has been the basis of social and political and economic models that we associate with Western modernity and which have now been exported across the world.
You have written on a number of socio-historical and political issues, but have not published any novel after The Romantics, your first. Is it a lack of faith in the genre or is it that novels are more difficult to write?
I started out as a novelist and wrote several novels before deciding to publish one and I fully intend to go back to the form. And, yes, the novel in its more conventional form can seem inadequate today. But the truth is that no compelling idea for a novel suggested itself to me after The Romantics. I didn’t want to do the same kind of book again and the experiences I was having seemed a better fit for other literary genres, the travel essay, reportage, reflective memoir, intellectual biography, historical essay. The difficulty is that I am now a very different person and writer than I was when I published The Romantics, and the novel I write now would have to reflect that, or it will bore me to tears, not to mention the reader.
Tabish Khair’s new novel How to Fight Islamist Terror from the Missionary Position was published earlier this year.