The fierce post-Colonial revenge
By Upendra Nath Sharma
09th September 2012 12:00 AM
The political currents that ran through Asia in the first half of the 20th century and the final portion of the 19th are well known but not always well understood. Struggles for independence, revolution and reform in Asia have been extensively documented, and the men and women who led them have been inducted into history books.
Journalist and novelist Pankaj Mishra doesn’t think of himself as a scholar with an obligation to rewrite history. Yet, his latest book From the Ruins of Empire is a top-down history which questions the Western historians’ view of the origin of nationalism in Asia. It is history with a difference in that it is told — not through major political events and personalities that led to the development of Asian nationalism and anti-colonialism, but through the stories of a generation of thinkers in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, educated and working in Asia, but deeply engaged with European thought and culture.
Iran’s Jamal al-din al-Afghani, China’s Lian Qichao and India’s Rabindranath Tagore inspired and animated the continent’s anti-colonial movements.
A glimpse of Mishra’s evangelical zeal to contest the Western view of Asian nationalism was available in his review of Niall Ferguson’s Civilisation in the London Review of Books last year where he is fiercely critical of the historian’s account of the West’s rise. Mishra accuses him of underplaying the role of slavery, colonialism and indentured labour in the West’s triumph. He identifies three main strands in the Asian response to the threat of western modernism: reactionaries who believed that the Orient will ultimately prevail; moderates who wanted to selectively assimilate Western values within the larger ambit of Asian culture; and revolutionaries like Atatürk and Mao Zedong who advocated a radical path to galvanise their societies. However, he doesn’t focus on Gandhi and Mao, but on intellectuals who judged Western-style politics and economics to be inherently violent and destructive forces.
Only a few years after al-Afghani rebutted British claims to have “civilised” India, Tagore was debating the vices of nationalism with the Japanese, and Liang Qichao was reflecting on the corruption of the American democracy and capitalism. He says,“ In many ways the insights Asian thinkers produced in their own and the larger human condition at this time are still influencing the world’s intellectual and political and shaping individual and collective consciousness.”
Mishra’s account opens with the 1905 battle of Tsushima, where the Japanese fleet defeated the Russians. He writes breathlessly about how future 20th-century Asian leaders found the victory inspiring. Mao, then a school boy, learnt a Japanese song in its honour; and Gandhi saw it as a “slap in the face” of the West. He attributes the resurgence of Asia to the efforts of these 19th century intellectuals who rejected West’s racial and imperial hierarchies and its right to define the rules of international politics.
Today, “the spell of Western power” to which the early modern intellectuals of Asia sought to respond has been broken. The “sense of humiliation that burdened several generations of Asians has greatly diminished”. But, as Mishra bemoans, this success conceals an immense intellectual failure. There are no convincingly Universalist responses to Western ideas of politics and economy, even though the latter seem increasingly fragile and dangerously suitable for large parts of the world. The Asian societies have by and large got their revenge for their past humiliations. But in the process they have lost many of the values that once distinguished them. Both India and China now have the inequalities of wealth that had so disturbed these 19th century intellectuals during their encounter with the West.
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