It is interesting to note that the Left and some elements of India’s Right have something in common. Viciously opposed to each other on a variety of issues, an anti-Western bias resonates with both the Left and a small segment of the Right. It is not the old Leftist anti-Westernism, with its stale vocabulary of anti-imperialism, that is the focus of this post, but anti-Western attitudes from the Right. This is not only, as some would suppose, the hindutva Right. Indeed, though they are a part of the broad anti-Western sentiment, they also find support among their swadeshi brethren.
A quick and brutally simplified explanation for non-Indian readers: hindutva is a notion of Hindu-ness, or more accurately (but less mentioned), Indic-ness. This view holds that the Indic philosophical systems of Hinduism, Jainism, Buddhism, and Sikhism represent a certain ethos that India would be wise to adopt. They point to overwhelming similarities between the four religions, philosophical openness, and a religious pluralism even within the faiths that are unparalleled elsewhere in the world. This is in sharp contradistinction to the more totalising Abrahamic faiths, particularly the proselytising faiths of Islam and Christianity. Swadeshi, on the other hand, was an economic reaction to the British practice of exporting Indian cotton and importing woven fabrics from Lancashire, Manchester, and elsewhere. The motivating factor here was not cultural unlike in hindutva, but an economic nationalism that bears an eerie similarity to protectionism. While hindutva resents the encroachment of Western culture into India, swadeshi resents its economic tentacles.
In the 21st century, these ideologies may appear parochial to some, but the historical context in which they evolved must be considered. Both these ideologies emerged during the British Raj when it was vital to convince Indians that not only were their Western political masters not better than them, but that Indian civilisation was in fact superior to anything the West had to offer. This was to strengthen Indian self respect more than be seen as a statement of fact. Similarly, swadeshi was to undermine the economic rationale for Empire. Admittedly, circumstances have changed, and the logic of the protectionism that once crippled mills in the British metropole is no longer relevant. Supporters of hindutva, however, still feel that the legacy of British imperialism lives on in India, in the form of political, social, and economic thought.
It is imperative to understand that even within these hasty categories, there exists a spectrum. At one end exist those who are strongly convinced that Indian history and experience provides lessons unique to India – after all, which other state can boast of so many languages, religions, and cultures? That India lies beyond the purview of most political science macro-theories (eg. nationalism) should itself be proof that Western ideas should be taken with a grain of salt. At the other end of the spectrum, a much more vocal end, are those who dress up their knee-jerk antipathy towards the West in the garb of ideology. Attacks on the West are usually incoherent, illogical, factually suspect, or sometimes not even topical. This is seen repeatedly in every debate over Indian engagement with the West, be it nuclear cooperation, military ventures, Foreign Direct Investment, foreign universities being allowed into India, or even the award of the Nobel Peace Prize to the European Union…there is a difference between calm, logical opposition and a vitriolic rejection in conjunction with off-topic criticism.
This hostility (rather than a confident rejection), I believe, comes from a deep inferiority complex. It is the inability of local conservatives to find a plausible indigenous intellectual alternative to the European ideas of the past three centuries. Even beyond secularism and liberalism, the non-West, let alone India, has singularly failed to capture international mind share with their alternatives to modernity, the Enlightenment, the industrial revolution, or the nation-state. In addition to that, the centuries-long Western material superiority and resultant domination in international affairs, weakening only in the last decade, has done little to assuage hurt national and cultural pride. As a natural defense mechanism, this group of anti-Western Right wingers continually disparage the West and attempt to retain focus on the many flaws in Western society. It is also attempted to persuade the rest that India needs nothing from the West – not its money, its technology, or its ideas. Presented as a choice between the “perfect” West and “flawed” Rest, and then disabusing anyone of the notion of Western perfection, an appeal is made to the audience’s self esteem to side with the reactionary Right and reject Western cooperation out of hand.
This vitriol is not borne out by any logical analysis. With India’s population still out of control (sorry, I don’t buy the euphemism of ‘youth dividend’ without commensurate jobs, education, and housing), Third World infrastructure, poor research and development in areas of high technology, and countless other problems, India needs all the help it can get from international investors in most sectors of its economy. Unlike the straw man that is offered by the reactionary Right, neither is anyone suggesting that India’s interests be sold down the river in her dealings with foreign powers, nor is anyone foolish enough to think that foreign powers would help India out of their altruism. That India has to give up something in its negotiations to gain something else seems an obvious tenet of bargaining, but one Indian anti-Western elements childishly refuse to accept. Every bargain is portrayed as a victory of the conniving West in collusion with the internally colonised over the “real” Indians…this is where you, dear reader, chortle.
Unfortunately, this ham-handed attempt at overturning a predominantly Western narrative structure of how we understand the world only serves to further marginalise the reactionaries by showing them to be an extreme fringe. If it is judged a worthy enterprise to challenge the Western hegemonic discourse of linear history and progress (something that is being done, unnoticed by the Indian reactionary Right, in Western academia too), it must be done with intellectual honesty and logic. Nor is it enough to criticise the West – a viable alternative must also be offered. Arguments that highlight Western evils can just as easily be turned around on the non-West; after all, no civilisation holds a spotless record. This blame game, however, played decades if not centuries after the events, does not particularly help in providing millions of Indians the very basics of a dignified life – clean water, sanitation, safety, and an opportunity for the pursuit of happiness.
An inferiority complex, envy, or anger will not rebuild India. Not all hands extended towards India are clenched in fists; some may be open and embracing, and because friendship is mutually beneficial and not fully altruistic, shall we spurn it? We must be careful not to turn into the poison we revile.