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Thursday, September 23, 2021

Asia’s Revolt against Empire

Pankaj Mishra’s new book is a provocative read with a deeply flawed worldview — it’s the West versus the rest

Written by Sanjaya Baru |
September 29, 2012 12:04:28 am

Book: From the Ruins of Empire

Author: Pankaj Mishra

Publisher: Penguin / Allen Lane

Price: 20 pounds

Pages: 368

It would be wrong to see the “re-making” of Asia,much less India,as a “revolt against the West”. Asia has indeed been “re-built” on the ruins of colonialism,but not on the ruins of all that the “West” has come to represent. Asked in 1931,at Oxford,“how far” would he “cut off India from the Empire”,Mahatma Gandhi replied: “From the Empire,completely; from the British nation not at all,if I want India to gain and not grieve.”

So I have a problem with Pankaj Mishra’s title,and the premise it is derived from. This does not mean I would not recommend the book for a reading. It is well written. There is scholarship in it,based on a reading of interesting texts and speeches spanning Muslim and Chinese Asia as well as some reading of Indian thinkers,especially Rabindranath Tagore. It is provocative,which in itself is a good reason to read a book.

But Mishra’s is a deeply flawed worldview. The abhorrence of “Western” empires,which is necessary,automatically extends into an abhorrence of the “West”,which is not at all necessary. That,however,is the lesser of my objections. Why we should privilege the writing of one Jamal Al-Din Al-Afghani (1838-97),the Muslim intellectual and polemicist of the 19th Century,as an “Asian” response to Western imperialism,and not a “Muslim” response to “Christian” rule is not at all clear to me. Al Afghani’s “strange odyssey”,as Mishra puts it,is the subject matter of a fourth of his book.

Then there is Liang Qichao (1873-1929),whom Mishra regards as “China’s foremost modern intellectual”,who too polemicised against imperialism,though in China’s case “Western” imperialism was clearly a lesser evil than “Eastern” imperialism (a point that Mishra does not adequately recognise),given that even today more Chinese are willing to come out on to their streets in protest against Japan than Britain,much less the US,which they all seek to


Before I state my final objection to this book’s thesis,let me state my agreements. Mishra is perfectly right to castigate the “West”,especially the old imperial powers of Europe,for erasing the memory of empire so much so that today’s generation of western students have little idea about the nature of their historical and,indeed,cultural links with the “periphery” that is now moving to the “centre”. Much racial prejudice is based on this ignorance.

Mishra is also right to posit at the outset that “for most people in Europe and America,the history of the twentieth century is still largely defined by the two world wars and the long nuclear stand-off with Soviet Communism. But 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…”.

The value of the book lies in the detailing of hitherto less known “Asian” voices against colonialism and imperialism. But,in doing so,Mishra imparts to this protest an excessively “cultural” and even “racial” undertone,which may have been the case with a “Muslim Asia” that still nurtures the memory of its “Holy Wars” with Christiandom,and even with “Sinic Asia” which has long nursed the fantasy of being the “Middle Kingdom”,but was not necessarily the case with the more secular and reasoned battle against colonialism that the “West” encountered in other parts of Asia,mainly India.

Thus,a more fundamental problem that I have with Mishra’s thesis is that it ignores the secular battles against colonialism,while somehow extending greater legitimacy to the more religious (Muslim) and cultural (Chinese) views of the empire. Neither Al-Afghani nor Liang could claim ignorance of such secular rejection of colonialism and imperialism since they ought to have been familiar with the writings of a great contemporary,and a “western” opponent of colonialism,namely Karl Marx.

The Marxian view would not posit the problem as West vs the Rest,as Mishra does,but as “Rulers” vs the “Ruled”. Such a perspective would help understand the complex strands of India’s own anti-colonial movement,which Gandhiji ensured remained secular at its core despite the very legitimate “Hindu” view in India that an even older India was victim of an “extended” West,that began at its very doorstep on the other side of the Indus. After all,Free India,unlike China or the remnants of the Ottoman Empire,rose from the “ruins” of not just the British Empire but centuries of invasions,conquests and aggrandisement.

Mishra comes close to recognising this “secular” character of the Indian national movement in his chapter on Tagore where he admits that Tagore was not opposed to Western “knowledge” but only to Western “rule”,but it is a thought that occurs almost at the very end of the book!

Finally,in considering the “re-making” of Asia,Mishra pays little attention to Indonesia,a country that brings together the three cultural traditions of Asia — Chinese,Muslim and Hindu. If Asia has to be truly re-made into the new centre of the world it must walk that path of pluralism,a path India and Indonesia have chosen,rather than the sectarian trajectories that so much of Mishra’s Asia has opted for.

The writer is director for geo-economics and strategy,International Institute for Strategic Studies,New Delhi

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