Return of retrograde nationalist dogma

Return of retrograde nationalist dogma

India, V S Naipaul declared in 1976, is “a wounded civilisation,” whose obvious political and economic dysfunction conceals a deeper intellectual crisis. As evidence, he pointed out some strange symptoms he noticed among upper-caste middle-class Hindus since his first visit to his ancestral country in 1962. These well-born Indians betrayed a craze for “phoren” consumer goods and approval from the West, as well as a self-important paranoia about the “foreign hand.” “Without the foreign chit,” Naipaul concluded, “Indians can have no confirmation of their own reality.”

Narendra Modi, India’s new prime minister and main ideologue of the Hindu-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party, is stoking old Hindu rage-and-shame over what he calls more than a thousand years of slavery under Muslim and British rule. Recently, while India and Pakistan were engaging in their heaviest fighting in over a decade, Modi claimed that the “enemy” was now “screaming.”

Since Naipaul defined it, the apocalyptic Indian imagination has been enriched by the exploits of Hindu nationalists, such as the destruction in 1992 of the 16th century Babri Masjid mosque, and the nuclear tests of 1998. Celebrating the tests in speeches in the late 1990s, including one entitled “Ek Aur Mahabharata” (One More Mahabharata), the then head of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the parent outfit of Hindu nationalists, claimed that Hindus, a “heroic, intelligent race,” had so far lacked proper weapons but were sure to prevail in the forthcoming showdown with demonic anti-Hindus, a broad category that includes Americans (who apparently best exemplify the worldwide “rise of inhumanity”).

A Harvard-trained economist called Subramanian Swamy recently demanded a public bonfire of canonical books by Indian historians - liberal and secular intellectuals who belong to what the RSS chief in 2000 identified as that “class of bastards which tries to implant an alien culture in their land.” Denounced by the numerous Hindu supremacists in social media as “sickular libtards” and sepoys, these intellectuals apparently are Trojan horses of the West. They must be purged to realise  Modi’s vision in which India, once known as the “golden bird,” will “rise again.”

Modi doesn’t seem to know that India’s reputation as a “golden bird” flourished during the long centuries when it was allegedly enslaved by Muslims. The psychic wounds Naipaul noticed among semi-Westernised upper-caste Hindus actually date to the Indian elite’s humiliating encounter with the geopolitical and cultural dominance first of Europe and then of America.
These wounds were caused, and are deepened, by failed attempts to match Western power through both mimicry and collaboration (though zealously anti-Western, Chinese nationalism has developed much more autonomously in comparison). Largely subterranean until it erupts, this sentiment of the West among thwarted elites can assume a more treacherous form than the simple hatred and rejectionism of outfits such as Al Qaeda, the Islamic State and the Taliban. The intellectual history of right-wing Russian and Japanese nationalism reveals an ominously similar pattern as the vengeful nativism of Hindu nationalists: a recoil from craving Western approval into promoting religious-racial supremacy.

The kind of retrograde 1920s-style nationalist dogma is making a big comeback in India, especially since last year when Modi overcame the taint of various suspected crimes to launch his bid for supreme power. Interestingly, it is not the RSS’s khaki-shorts-wearing volunteers but rather quasi-Westernised Indians in the corporate-owned media and mysteriously well-funded think tanks, magazines and websites who have provided the ambient chorus for Modi’s ascent to respectability.

India’s recent economic travails and diminished international standing have frustrated these rising Indians’ sense of entitlement, provoking them to lash out at such handy scapegoats as “racist” and “Orientalist” Westerners and Indian libtards and sepoys. Typical of their ersatz nativism is a book entitled “The New Clash of Civilizations,” which gleefully heralds India’s hegemony worldwide. It was written by Minhaz Merchant, the Anglicised former editor of a defunct lifestyle magazine called Gentleman and now a self-appointed publicist for the prime minister. Many such “Modi Toadies,” as Salman Rushdie calls them, had Western tails once, like the Harvard-economist-turned-book-burner.
Others still cling to those tails, such as the wealthy businessman called Rajiv Malhotra, hailed by Modi for “glorifying our priceless heritage.” Malhotra routinely puts out, from his perch in suburban New Jersey, popular screeds asserting that American and European churches, Ivy League academics, think tanks, NGOs and human-rights groups are trying to break up Mother India with the help of both dalits and sepoy intellectuals.

Lest he be accused of irrationality, Malhotra also claims that the intuitive Indian worldview is not only different from but also cognitively superior to the logic-addled Western outlook.  Malhotra has worked up his own version of the Russian Idea and kokutai with some piffle about the “integral unity” of Indian philosophy, a notion that conflates very different Hindu and Buddhist traditions. In his North American redoubt, Malhotra runs workshops aimed at mass-producing “intellectual kshatriyas” (intellectual warriors).

Racial-religious revenge
The fantasies of racial-religious revenge and redemption that breed in Western suburbs as well as posh Indian enclaves today speak of a vast spiritual desolation as well as a deepening intellectual crisis. Even Naipaul briefly succumbed to the pathology of mimic machismo he had despised (and, later, also identified among chauvinists in Muslim countries). He hailed the vandalising by a Hindu mob of the Babri Masjid mosque in 1992, which triggered nationwide massacres of Muslims, as the sign of an overdue national “awakening.”

There are many more such non-resident Indians in the West today, vicariously living history’s violent drama in their restless exile: In Madison Square Garden, in New York, last month, more than 19,000 people cheered Modi’s speech about ending India’s millennium-long slavery. But hundreds of millions of uprooted Indians are also now fully exposed to demagoguery. In an unprecedented public intervention this month, the present chief of the RSS, who wants all Indian citizens to identify themselves as Hindus since India is a “Hindu nation,” appeared on state television to rant against Muslim infiltrators and appeal for a boycott of Chinese goods.

Such crude xenophobia, now officially sanctioned in Modi’s India, seems only slightly less menacing than the previous RSS chief’s wishful thinking about one more Mahabharata against demonic anti-Hindus. Japan’s expansionist gambles in China and the Pacific in the last century and, more recently, Russia’s irredentism in Ukraine show that a mainstreamed rhetoric of national aggrandizement can quickly slide into reckless warmongering.

Certainly, the ruling classes of wannabe superpowers have spawned a complex force: the ideology of anti-imperialist imperialism, which, forming an axis with the modern state and media and nuclear technology, can make Islamic fundamentalists seem toothless. One can only hope that India’s democratic institutions are strong enough to constrain yet another wounded elite from breaking out for geopolitical and military manhood.

DH Newsletter Privacy Policy Get top news in your inbox daily
GET IT
Comments (+)