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Why is India always on the defensive intellectually? When was the last time India shaped or led an international discussion rather than respond? To paraphrase Moisés Naim and put it more bluntly, when was the last time an Indian at an Indian institution contributed something that altered the way we understand the world? For an answer, we must look uncomfortably far back in history. That horological distance also questions the trope of a rising India or Asia.

India’s failure to speak in its own voice reveals an unpleasant reality for Third World nationalists, that our world is intellectually unipolar and Western even if the centre of economic activity is shifting towards Asia and Western military dominance is severely challenged either by growing militaries in other parts of the world or by new modes of warfare.

The implications of not having one’s own narrative that is clearly and firmly expressed are vast. For example, why did Israeli military action in Gaza receive so much coverage in the Indian media when Afghanistan, much closer to home, was going through critical elections? Why does Boko Haram get more column inches than the Lashkar-e-Taiba in Pakistan, right next door and just as threatening? To an extent, the Indian news cycle is influenced by what is deemed important by US or Western news cycles.

The state of Indian academia is just as depressing; not a single programme is considered among the world’s best, Indian journals have no presence in their fields, and few professors have publications in the most esteemed journals and presses. As a result, students seek out Western universities which have better libraries, better informed professors, and access to the best academic journals. These institutions inevitably pass on the value systems and priorities of the host culture to their students. The cumulative effect of this knowledge system is that an Indian who wishes to study Iranian history or Shintoism will most likely end up looking at his subject through Western eyes.

At a practical level, the reliance on Western universities and think tanks subverts any uniquely Indian perspective – if it exists – from emerging. The spread of post-Enlightenment European rationalism posited several false universals such as linear history, time, and Liberalism that are only now being noticed, ironically more so in Western universities. The loss of indigenous voices is damaging not just nationally but also internationally for two reasons: 1. the burden of Third World progress falls squarely on the West and its unique experience, and 2. the implantation of Western values on local cultures has failed time and again in the Middle East, Africa, and Asia.

Italian Marxist politician and theorist Antonio Gramsci described the concept of hegemony as the power accrued to an entity when it is able to gain acceptance for its worldview as normative and universal. In other words, a hegemon is able to shape the framework, the very vocabulary of discourse – historical, economic, political, social, or other – to position its values as objective, neutral, and those to be aspired to by all; a failure to follow the scripted path indicates a shortcoming on the part of the Other.

The preponderance of Western academia, think tanks, publications, and media also means that the global south does not get to set an agenda important to its well-being. Issues important to the hegemon will be discussed more, the challenges the hegemon perceives as greatest will receive more funding, and the solutions the hegemon devises will gain the maximum support. For example, American scholars may be preoccupied with nuclear proliferation, terrorism, and the rise of China but their counterparts in Africa may be more interested in agriculture, health, and education. These African issues, however, will gain little space in the Western public sphere and will at most be relegated to a small programme on development economics or world history.

To be fair, academia and media can only follow a path set for them by the government. The United States produces experts on a wide range of topics because, as a superpower, there is little that is not of interest to Washington. For example, the India-Pakistan War of 1971 had a direct impact on US foreign policy as it affected a principle player – Pakistan – in the United States’ rapprochement with China. The result of this impact is well-documented in Gary Bass’ The Blood Telegram. Similarly, unrest in Somalia can threaten the security of sea lanes in the region and upset the global order the United States and Indian Ocean littoral states profit from. Scholars with expertise in a diverse range of topics can therefore expect to be consulted by Washington if a situation arises.

The same cannot be said of relations between the Indian government and its academics – there is little incentive to study Southeast Asia if Delhi’s Look East policy is merely a tombstone that marks the grave of the country’s Southeast Asia policy. There is also no community of analysts inside and outside the government demanding the sort of articles produced by Foreign Affairs, The Atlantic, or The New Yorker.

The United States is perhaps the only country with global interests, a fact demonstrated by its knowledge industry. There are few international issues that the United States has no presence in. For example, no serious conference on the nuclear fuel cycle or on Islamic terrorism can be held without representatives from the United States because of the sheer number of scholars and practitioners in that country. Undoubtedly, this lends an American shading to the proceedings and leaves Indians trying to understand why Pakistan is less of a nuclear and Islamist threat than Iran.

An advantage the United States has over most rising powers is its freedom of information and expression. Open archives contribute enormously to US scholars’ understanding of their country’s interests and policies around the globe. Furthermore, the lack of information from other sources benefits US-centric opinions on international affairs. Brazil is perhaps the only country from the global south so far to begin a substantial declassification process of its archives but it will take time for the first mature results to flow in from this openness.

The addition of other voices to the global discussion may at first seem detrimental to US national interests and if information is viewed in a narrow-minded manner as propaganda, it is. However, the mixed success of US socio-economic and political theories indicates room for other conceptions of human values and visions. Emerging powers like Brazil, India, Mexico, and Turkey will take decades yet to create a global presence like the United States and generate a demand for knowledge. However, this intellectual development of rising powers will only enrich the debate and hopefully yield better results in international disputes and arbitration.

Until then, India will have to react rather than act; its intellectual framework will be set by outsiders, and it will be under pressure to conform to norms it had no part in setting. For that is the price of intellectual sluggishness.


This post appeared on FirstPost on October 10, 2014.

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