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The West & the Rest: Pankaj Mishra on the Asian Response to Western Dominance

By Murali Kamma Email By Murali Kamma
December 2012
The West & the Rest: Pankaj Mishra on the Asian Response to Western Dominance

Few Indians writing nonfiction today are as prominent as Pankaj Mishra. Known widely for his incisive articles and analyses, which often appear in respected periodicals, he is the author of five books, including the recently published From the Ruins of Empire: The Intellectuals Who Remade Asia. Mishra spoke to Khabar.

Now in his early 40s, writer Pankaj Mishra is married to Mary Mount, a U.K.-based book editor and Prime Minister David Cameron’s cousin. Her father, a notable British literary figure, was an advisor to Margaret Thatcher. That should lead to interesting discussions at family gatherings, for Mishra is hardly a Tory sympathizer or a friend to powerful politicians. He can be fiercely anti-establishment, in fact, and is a champion of activist writers like Arundhati Roy, whom he “discovered” as a young editor when the manuscript of her Booker Prize-winning The God of Small Things landed on his desk.

Mishra’s range may be wide—he writes fluently and with authority on numerous topics—yet his aim is usually rock-steady, allowing him to deploy missile-like words with devastating effect. And he can be fearless (some would say ferocious). His long essay in the London Review of Books on Niall Ferguson’s latest work, Civilization: The West and the Rest, provoked such a furious reaction from Ferguson that the bestselling, right-leaning historian at Harvard threatened to sue Mishra for libel, and reportedly made this statement: “I will hound him in print in a way he has never experienced before.” Then there was a skirmish with Patrick French, in the pages of Outlook magazine, when Mishra reviewed his India: A Portrait.

Mishra’s dispatches from Kashmir in The New York Review of Books angered the Indian government, even leading to some harassment in India. Imran Khan probably wasn’t pleased by his brilliant profile of him in The New York Times Magazine, just as Salman Rushdie must have been miffed by Mishra’s less-than-enthusiastic evaluations of his post-fatwa books, including a sharp review of Rushdie’s Joseph Anton: A Memoir in The Guardian. Mishra also writes (or has written) regular columns for outlets like Bloomberg and New Statesman, and is a frequent commentator on the BBC. A longish piece in The New Yorker, to give one more example of his versatility, takes us on a revealing trip to Lhasa in Tibet on China’s Qingzang railway.

From the fringes of the Anglo-centric literary world, Mishra seems to have moved to the center with astonishing speed. And it’s sheer talent, not to mention a little luck, that took him there. Far from being a product of fancy schools like Doon or Eton, and St. Stephen’s College or Oxford University, Mishra went to Allahabad University, although he did go on to do his graduate studies at Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University.



The jaunty Butter Chicken in Ludhiana: Travels in Small-Town India, his first book, came out when he was still winging it as a young freelancer in Mashobra, a hill station in Himachal Pradesh. The Romantics, his only novel so far, won The Los Angeles Times First Fiction Award. Set in Banaras among seekers and dreamers, it’s a meditation on a recurring theme in Mishra’s work: the complicated dance between East and West. Next came An End to Suffering: The Buddha in the World, an artful blend of memoir, philosophy, and travelogue that shows how this ancient tradition has a modern relevance.



Though based in the U.K., where he is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature, Mishra, a native of Jhansi in Uttar Pradesh, travels frequently and continues to spend time in Mashobra every year. Temptations of the West: How to be Modern in India, Pakistan, and Beyond is a collection of his journalistic essays. He edited an anthology on India and has written introductions to some modern literary classics.

Mishra spoke to Khabar recently about his new book, which focuses on the roots of Asian opposition to colonialism and imperialism. As he points out, “it is now clearer that the central event of the last century, for the majority of the world’s population, was the intellectual and political awakening of Asia and its emergence from the ruins of both Asian and European empires.”


Instead of writing about South Asia, as you usually do, what prompted you to take on such a broad theme, because many of these Asian countries have profound differences, not just similarities? Was opposition to Western colonialism the glue that held them together?
Well, I wanted to explore this history before these differences got institutionalized in the form of nation states. When we talk about India and China or places like Turkey or Egypt, they are very different from each other. You have to remember that there was a time when they shared a lot of challenges and dilemmas in the 19th century, early 20th century, when the contemporary nation states hadn’t come into being. So I wanted to go back to that moment before the big anticolonial programs and mass movements got under way, and look at the first figures in China and the Muslim world who were trying to formulate a response to Western imperialism.

You note how European colonialism was unlike other conquests, in that it wasn’t just about political, economic, and military domination. But others have said that there was nothing unique about it. There were earlier invaders like the Mughals who wreaked much havoc. Even within Indian society we had the cruelties of the caste system, which inflicted so much damage. So what makes British colonialism and racism so different?
The simple answer to that is we’re not living in a world made by Mughal imperialism. We’re not living in a world made by Persian or Ottoman imperialism. We’re living in a world made by Western imperialism. So that is my primary concern. That’s what I’m dealing with here, the kind of imperialism that has really left no part of the world unaffected. Wherever you go you see emblems of Western modernity. The West was not just politically and militarily dominant, but also intellectually and morally dominant. Countries all around the world have adopted some form of Western political system, ideologies, forms of Western popular culture, ways of Western dress. If you can name a single imperialism in the past that achieved this kind of success—or this kind of tragic success—I’d be very impressed. There’s no imperialism that comes close to establishing this kind of global presence and global hierarchy where entire nations in Europe are on top. No other imperialism, however strong and powerful, was able to establish that kind of presence.

Not only in terms of range, but also in the length of time …
Absolutely. People were cruel, brutal, ruthless…any number of examples spring to mind from Alexander the Great to Genghis Khan. But their brutality was constrained by the limited number of resources they had. Alexander the Great swept across a lot of territory and killed a lot of people, but then he went back. That was it. Then he left this loosely administered territory behind. But this business of getting farmers in Bihar to grow opium for sale to China, and forcing the Chinese to buy the opium, and using Indian soldiers to beat up the Chinese, importing Chinese labor into the Caribbean, importing Indian labor into the Fiji islands—this kind of global movement of capital, of products, of human labor—this was totally unprecedented.



This brings me to your [highly critical] review of Niall Ferguson’s Civilization: The West and the Rest. It provoked such a furious reaction from him. He claims that there were six killer apps that helped the West beat the rest and dominate the world for 500 years or whatever. But you say that he missed one important killer app. How important was that missing killer app?
The most important of these so-called killer apps was imperialism. The fact is that the West had such a huge advantage over everyone else when it set out to expand its economy. Britain had the entire world at its disposal back in the early 19th century and could conquer with its superior power just about any part of the world it wanted to. Same with America when it became an industrial power in the late 19th century. I think to discount the role of conquest and imperial exploitation and to simply credit the West with certain indigenous advantages that the West apparently accumulated without any help from anyone else is nonsense. We know that Western science was a collaborative project—discoveries by Arab scientists, Indian mathematicians, Chinese scientists had led up to what happened in the West. And they obviously used science and technology in ways that had not been used before, such as the way in which they developed superior military firepower. Gunpowder had been invented before, but hadn’t been used in quite the same way.

The Chinese and Indians and any number of others weren’t interested in global conquest the same way. They had the resources and were traveling but they weren’t interested in conquering. The Chinese emperors, for instance, did send out any number of navies and merchant ships into the big wide world. One should acknowledge the many advantages that the West subsequently accumulated since the late 18th century, [but] this talk of 500 years is all rubbish. Most people even in the late 18th century were being extremely reverential to the Chinese emperor and to some of the Indian kings and chieftains. It was only after the late 18th and in the early 19th centuries that the West took the lead over the Asian countries.


Right: A 1940 portrait of Tagore by Xu Beihong.
Below: Tagore in China.

Our readers would be more interested in Tagore than the other intellectuals you profile. He became an influential and inspiring figure after winning the Nobel Prize. But then, even as he was being lionized in the West, Asians became disenchanted with him. Why did that happen?


Tagore plays a very important role because he enters the book when [the others] are being pushed aside. Particularly in Japan, which is already modernized but finding that there are limits to its attempt to become a respectable international power, there are certain hurdles being put in its way. So it has to become more militaristic and go all the way in its imitation of Western imperialism. Tagore is a very strong critic of that from the beginning, and he can see that the whole quest for modernization can lead nations and peoples down these blind alleys. Japan is the first example of that in Asia, where it becomes a clone of Western imperialism. Tagore offers a very strong and persuasive moral critique of nationalism and of the nation state and also implicitly of the kind of hard-line ideologies emerging in Asia at that time. He’s a very important thinker in that way.

Do we see echoes of what you wrote in the Arab Spring? It looks like “the democratization of mass resentment” that you talk about is happening today.
The Arab Spring is basically delayed decolonization. We in India and elsewhere in Asia went through this process about 50-60 years ago and finally emerged from under the yoke of Western empires and became relatively sovereign nations with little Western interference. But that hasn’t been the case with the Arab world. They enjoyed some degree of sovereignty but they were all under great pressure most of the time. And then they were reabsorbed into the Western imperium. Countries like Egypt under Hosni Mubarak were basically client states of the United States. And finally now, with the younger, politicized population, they have broken through to this ideal of sovereignty and self-determination that many other countries in Asia have been already enjoying. I think it’s completing a historical process that started in the mid-20th century. It’s by no means a complete process. There will be many, many more. There are hurdles to come and there will be a lot of chaos and violence in various parts of post-colonial Asia and Africa. The important thing that has happened is that they’ve broken free of the spell of Western power. It’s part of the historical logic of the 20th century.

Speaking of violence, the response to Innocence of Muslims [inflammatory video] was totally out of proportion, according to many people, especially since the film was made by fringe elements and had no official U.S. support. But you say we shouldn’t be surprised by such reactions and this may actually continue. Why?
You have to imagine yourself in a neighborhood where two devastating wars have been fought and hundreds of thousands of people have been killed and mutilated. Millions have been turned into refugees and a whole religion like Christianity has been destroyed. And the people you know are subject to completely arbitrary things like indefinite detention, rendition, and torture. You’ve been exposed to this for ten years now. On top of that, from the same source that you blame for the wars and refugees, comes this film. What are you supposed to say? How are you supposed to respond? I’m not saying the crazy extremists attacking the American embassies are representative of the Muslim population of the Arab world. Not at all. But the fact is that just about every person you speak to in a place like Cairo is fed up with American and Western interference in their country. So something like this film simply provides a spark for a huge reservoir of extremely volatile resentment and anger. So it’s silly to simply look at this as a question of differing values or freedom of speech in America and lack of freedom of speech in the Arab world. These are highly simplistic notions, which completely disregard the political context or overall matrix of wars and any number of humiliations that people in that part of the world have been suffering for the last decade or so.

Salman Rushdie, whose memoir you recently reviewed, said we should not curb such expressions—meaning, the film should be allowed—and that succumbing to pressure and curbing free speech would only make matters worse. Do you think that’s a responsible statement given the violence we have seen? Of course, we do not want to curb free speech, but where do we draw the line?
As a writer who is prone to saying things that are deemed controversial, I have to stand by the ideal of free speech, and stand by the ideal of defending and protecting it. At the same time, all of us who write and who engage and work in the larger public sphere—and who say things that are given some degree of attention—have to be responsible, too. In addition to insisting on freedom of speech, we should also insist on ethical responsibility and not do or say anything to poison relationships which are already deeply poisoned at this point—whether it’s the attitude of Muslims living in the Arab world or in the United States. When people in the United States see Muslims, they see a whole lot of ungrateful and angry people. So there’s a lot of distrust and anger on both sides. And we should be careful when we make statements to not make the situation worse. It’s not to ask for censorship but simply to say we are living in an extremely volatile, interdependent world. So we have to remember that whenever we choose to exercise our right to free speech.

Rushdie also said that there’s been a rise in identity politics, with people defining themselves by what offends and outrages them rather than by what they love. I don’t know if you share that sentiment.
I don’t subscribe to such simple notions. I think people are thrown back into their identities because of what happens to them in the larger political world. After 9/11 we see a lot of reclamation of political identities because people are thrown, people are identified in certain ways. In America, if you’re a dark-skinned person wearing a turban you would be identified as a Muslim even if you were a Sikh. And if you are a Muslim, obviously you have to face a different kind of situation. In that situation, a lot of people who were previously secular and never prayed or anything became more devout and insistent about their political identity. There are different stages in which identities become important. One should never disconnect that whole process from the world of politics and history.



How Fair Is India’s Free Market Economy?

The Indian government is opening doors to giant foreign retailers like Wal-Mart. You’ve been a critic of India’s neoliberal policies these last 20 years. But others have said that despite many shortcomings, liberalization does bring benefits—at least it’s better than the alternatives, which we tried and did not work. How do you respond to folks like Patrick French who say that opposition to liberalization from Left-leaning groups is an “ideological cry of pain.”
I don’t want to respond to individual views, but there are any number of divergent opinions on this. I’ve made my position clear in various things I’ve written in the last decade or so. One of the things I’ve stressed is that what liberalization in India has meant is much more important than supporting an abstract idea of economic reform. When you look at what these reforms are, in what way they’ve benefited ordinary businessmen, has it really made life easier for them or has it made life easier for a lot of big businessmen who are being given access to national resources like land or mining rights? That’s what has really happened. That’s what is driving India’s growth rate in the last six-seven years or so. We’ve witnessed a kind of crony capitalism, with the state and big businessmen working very closely together. And they’ve become rich. One scandal after another—2G, Coalgate, etc.—has made it very clear.

So let’s not just look at reforms in the abstract. Let’s look at what we mean by reforms in the Indian context. Do we mean reforms that are designed to benefit big businessmen and keep small businessmen in their place, or are we talking about reforms that generally open up the economy and make it easier for ordinary people to become entrepreneurs? You have to ask yourself the question—why doesn’t India have many more Horatio Alger stories like America did when it was emerging and modernizing itself? Why is it that only the big families remain the big industrial houses in the country? There are a few exceptions to this in the Information Technology business, but otherwise it’s the same old people—the Mahindras, the Tatas, the Birlas. It hasn’t changed much.

Even in politics it’s the same story.
It’s the same faces. The people who talk about economic liberalization and insist on the need for reforms without specifying what they mean are not really examining, they’re just running with these abstractions. I think of them as ideological. They never examine the reality behind those abstractions. They just indulge in sloganeering, not really asking what reform has meant in India in the last 10-15 years. One has to break down these questions and these issues and look at them in their very specific details.

You end your book on a very somber, even bleak, note. You say that even though the re-emergence of Asia was a big thing for a majority of people, this “success conceals an immense intellectual failure, one that has profound ramifications for the world today and the near future.” Could you elaborate on why you think the so-called rise of India and China is nothing to really cheer about?
Because I think it is predicated on any number of ideologies and ideas that were roundly discredited in the last century, which witnessed some of the bloodiest conflicts in the history of humanity between nation states competing for resources, territories—whether it was Japan in Asia or whether it was Germany, which fought two major world wars in order to have its share of the world pie that European nations already had. When we adopt particular political and economic models that have caused a great deal of conflict elsewhere, which are predicated upon endless growth, endless expansion, endless search for resources, then we are setting ourselves up for conflict. And that’s what India and China are doing as they now supposedly rise with their billions of people, all of whom have been promised a utopia of middle-class consumerism. That is the promise that’s been offered to each one of us. There is no alternative vision of the good life. It’s all about achieving a certain Western standard of living. We know it is unsustainable environmentally because the world doesn’t have the resources to provide for…

Two billion people…
Yes, it’s struggling to provide for a few hundred million Europeans and Americans. The climate change has accelerated because of that. Polar ice caps are melting. The climate patterns are going crazy all over the world. Things are going pretty crazy without 2.6 billion people living the same lifestyle. So it’s environmentally and politically unsustainable. You already look at the kinds of social unrest and the manifestations it takes now in places like India and China, whether it’s the militant insurgency in central India or any number of protests erupting in China. So it’s not just conflict between nation states but also conflict within nation states. We know about the forms of inequality that these models of economic growth produce. We’ve already seen that in America and in Europe. They are not going to create any equitable distribution of resources in places like India and China. So they’ve grown actually more unequal. They may have grown more prosperous in the last 20 years, but they’ve also grown more unequal. And this is built into the way this particular economic model works. So we are looking at more and more crises and conflicts. There’s no reason to be triumphalist about the rise of Asia or congratulate oneself.


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