Indian Studies; Reversing the Metropolitan Gaze

A long essay by Brooklyn philosopher Samir Chopra on the Hindutvadi school (not necessarily their term, or his) of Rajiv Malhotra and  Balagangadhara and friends.

As the historian Satadru Sen pointed out to me in conversation, there are two broad points that run counter to the kind of gaze reversal Balagangadhara and Malhotra attempt.  First, their attempt founders on some ineluctable facts. Orientalist gazes reflect uncomfortable historical realities of power; the East is scrutinised by this gaze because the West, to put it bluntly, conquered it. The philosophical and theoretical apparatus of its gaze was that of a civilization that had asserted its will over another. No such conquest underwrites this attempt to examine the West through an Indian lens, especially when Indian scholars themselves by and large do not rely on Indian philosophical or theoretical analyses to study the world or their own societies. Indeed, there is at this point in time, no unconquered, un-Orientalised Orient to deploy against the West. The fact of conquest does not grant the West the right to objectify. But still, whatever came before its encounter with the East has been transformed at a very fundamental level by this fact. So again, there is now no authentically Indian or indigenous lens that can be brought to bear on the West.  The contexts within which our discourses take place are those largely constituted by the Western intellectual tradition; Balagangadhara’s and Malhotra’s philosophical idioms—couched in English—belong to it. The contemporary exercise of reversing the gaze—in particular, in the manner sought by Balagangadhara and Malhotra—seems like a thought experiment destined to fail.

Second, the “Indian culture,” “Hinduism,” and “dharmic traditions” referred to by Balagangadhara and Malhotra are left mysteriously unspecified. We might wonder how inclusive these terms are. Those who assume the existence of these broad and abstract categories can all too easily marginalise others who might not share their unspoken definitions of them. The group Balagangadhara claims to be speaking for—the “majority of Indians”, the “men and women” who “protest” the “violence” done to them by academic studies of “Hinduism”—enjoys hegemonic status. Those who suffer under that hegemony— women, adivasis, Dalits—might put forward very different understandings of what they would consider acts of “violence” directed against them, and might not, for instance, mind the inducements of conversion.

Here is a challenge for “Indian studies” as advocated by  Balagangadhara and Malhotra: to not take refuge in imagined glories of systems understood in the abstract, independent of their actual historical application and manifestations, or indulge in implausible apologia for manifestly real social ills. Rather it must reckon with the history of this nation, one in which English has emerged as a language in which Balagangadhara and Malhotra seek to communicate and one whose study requires a more inclusive view than they seem to exercise. – See more at:

I had some off-the-cuff comments on the 3QD site and am copying them here (with minimal editing) in the hope of getting feedback.
I know Malhotra fans are going to be somewhat upset, but by now those who are also my friends will realize this is not meant to be an attack..

Malhotra (and company?) seem to be operating (most of the time) at the level of political polemicists, driven by their commitments in present day politics (particularly identity politics, in which they have chosen their ground as Hindu nationalists or Indian nationalists, or both?). Their scholarship seems no more objective (to me) than that of various left wing “politics-first” scholars who use the jargon of postcolonial studies or Marxism (post-Marxism?), or of the various Islamist scholars whose priorities are set by their chosen identity (real or imagined..or both?) and their contemporary political stance.
All of these groups may not be equal. To an amateur outside observer (aka me) the Indian-HIndutva armamentarium seems a bit thin. Not zero. But thin, compared to the vast quantities of scholarship (good, bad or mixed) upon which any progressive scholar can build. Or even when compared to what is already mainstreamed within the metropolitan gaze for Islamists. Hindutvadis have further to climb (and less asabiya to start with? After all, most Hindus in mainstream metropolitan academia are not Hindutvadis; there are many more Gayatri Spivaks or mainstream liberal scholars, no?).

An acquaintance (Pakistani) who is an Islamist and a historian (U Chicago) once dismissed some vaguely Indophile claim I happened to make with the dismissive retort: “Oh Please! Let us not delude ourselves about the relative civilizational heft of these contenders. My party (Islam) may be down, but we are not at Hindu-level in the world civilizational conflict game. Let’s not bring the minor league teams into this”.

I rejected his stance then (and still do) based on whatever notion of Western-Scientific-Global-Human-Punjabi-Indian-Islamic identity and ideals with which I imagine myself trying to figure things out, but a lot of Hindutva’s relative weakness is explicable in such terms: they are just not embedded deep enough in the dominant traditions of the modern world. Still, by itself this is hardly a permanent disqualification. A billion people, a long history, a cultural heritage that is not yet completely lost; maybe even “Indianism” may not be a completely impossible fantasy (though I personally think any form that becomes strong enough to play at world level will have to become more inclusive within India, and more friendly to science, to Western knowledge and to serious historiography)?

At some level, I expect almost all of us (readers of 3QD, liberal Desis) see ourselves as being above this level of identity politics and it’s “crude clash of civilizations worldview”. And I hope we are right. But comparing apples to apples, the crudity of some of their myths, ambitions and paradigms is not an infinite distance from the sophistication of Marxian or even Niall-Fergusian worldviews.

Then again, as Samir points out, one group did manage a huge conquest relatively recently. And had a disproportionate role in creating the modern world. At some point, we have to reckon with the facts on the ground.

PS: from twitter:
Ali: One can speak of angels and be taken seriously, but talk of 6-armed deities won’t fly.

 Not fair, of course, but history still lives in a Judaeo-Christian discourse.

In that sense, their frustration is understandable, as was Said’s.But frustration alone isn’t scholarship.

Omar: But one feels for them. Where Said is honored, they r treated as idiots..

PS2: The following passage from Samir’s article is worth a second look:

Those who suffer under that hegemony— women, adivasis, Dalits—might put forward very different understandings of what they would consider acts of “violence” directed against them, and might not, for instance, mind the inducements of conversion.

While completely unremarkable to anyone who works in the Western tradition (including poco-pomo scholars who like to imagine they inhabit an anti-western universe hovering above the Metropolitan tools and toadies of the world), it is also a good example of what Malhotra and his fans would consider “Western brainwashing in action” (with some justification?).

Why is it that Indian society and Indian history cannot be approached without focusing on the “hegemony of the upper-castes” (sometimes simplified to Brahmanism) and the “oppression of women, adivasis and Dalits”? This trope is so popular that it is hard to imagine it could be otherwise, but isn’t this the most Metropolitan of Metropolitan gazes at India? The story of India includes (for sure) caste-differentiation, the subordinate status of women and the oppression of Dalits (since I know almost nothing about those now labeled adivasis, I will leave that topic to those who know better), but something similar is true of practically ANY premodern society. Yet when we talk of Japanese art or Chinese literature we don’t always have to bring up how  women were treated, or how Japanese peasants were treated or how outcaste Japanese existed (very precariously) on the outskirts of those beautiful Japanese cities; but it does seem that no comment about Indian history or culture can be written without an obligatory nod to caste-oppression or the status of women. (I understand that there are Hindutvadis who would like to continue certain oppressions here and now, but again note that their “cultural peculiarities” do not get the same “understanding” (if not approval) as those of, say, the Islamists).
Why might this be a problem? Well, first of all, it may not be the whole story.  And secondly, it may not even be entirely true. It is a construction, a structure we impose on the great mass of Indian history and culture. And Western writers wrote this book on Indian culture and Indian history in the last 200 years, and they created many of the categories, and they continue to do so... even Indians writing about India (especially, but not only, in English) are never free of this metropolitan viewpoint and these metropolitan priorities; even (and perhaps especially) when they write as left-wing critics of Western domination.

Of course, Malhotra and company tend to see this as conspiracy (the left-liberal Indian is a “pet” or “hired hand” of the machinery of Western domination), while I think even people like Pankaj Mishra and Arundhati Roy are completely sincere and in fact, in their own minds, are fighting against the West and its domination of discourse. They just don’t see their own (very) Western gaze.
Which is the point.

PS3: I am making absolutely no claim of somehow having escaped this “Western gaze” problem. I personally don’t see it as that much of a problem. But the frustration of the Hindutvadis comes from the fact that those who do see such things as a problem are not giving them the same license that they are willing to give to other “others” in global culture.  🙂
Something like that.

PS4: Rajiv Malhotra posted a reply on his yahoo group. It is posted below (btw, if his aim is to get the conversation started, then this article from Samir counts as a major breakthrough. While somewhat critical, it is not the usual brush-off that Rajiv Malhotra gets from the Western-Desi academia)
Malhotra wrote. BEGIN QUOTE:

Samir Chopra says Nussbaum responded to me, but merely cites her allegations
with no backup. To say I am no good without concrete examples, etc. is
hardly a “response”.

He says my idea of non-translatables has the problem that we would be unable to communicate ideas across cultures. But he does not consider my proposal
that we embed these Sanskrit non-translatables into the English language, and
gradually help people understand them without using English substitutes.
The same has been done with words imported from German, French – and
even Sanskrit words like yoga. These are called loan words in
linguistics. So why the fuss?

He feels that all too often I rely on a narrow history of the west. This
is true and must be true of any attempt to engage the west, and I
repeatedly point out that my intent is not to essentialize and rather to
see distinct loci for discussion purposes. It is also true of the history of India commonly taught. When they say “Islamic/Mughal period” what about major non-Islamic empires and rulers in many parts of the country? Similarly for the so-called British period. The layering of Indian history into chronologies is an article of academic dogma seldom challenged; but the facts of history are far more complex. There is virtually nothing you can say about India without counter-examples. Take caste, sati, dowry for example – one cannot consider these uniform across either time or geography. So a good project for the author would be to take over what I tried doing since the 1990s – to write point by point rebuttals of USA textbooks, college reading materials as well as research papers on such subjects, pointing out the “narrowness” of their approach. The hard reality is that people refer to referents like China, EU, USA, etc. in a similar manner as approximations that serve a given purpose but that cannot be essentialized too much. So when I contrast the history-centrism of Abrahamic faiths with dharmic reliance on embodied knowing of living exemplars, I make an important and original observation. This can enrich the discourse. Thats its purpose. And as a matter of fact, I have succeeded in introducing many such points of distinction into the discourse. Several theologians from the Abrahamic traditions have themselves found such observations remarkable. The author is using too much of the text-book postmodern critique of any reference to anything.

I have been a permanent resident of the USA since 1971 (long before the
majority of US citizens were born); hence I certainly understand its cultural diversity intimately, having engaged in numerous NGOs, civic groups, professional, etc areas. These scholars from India tend to be in campus cocoons blissfully ignorant of society outside what they read from each other.

He claims I consider western thought inferior. I do not. However, I find its struggle to move from modernity to post-modernity suffering. On the one hand it borrows and digests a great deal from India in this movement. On the other hand there is a sanitization/domestication of Indic materials in this process that removes important elements.

What I find inferior are the Indians mimicking the west and blindly
importing it, and I critique Indians’ inferiority complexes. Neither here nor there, they control too much discourse. Thats my target. Americans are merely the product of their European backgrounds followed by the scars of occupying the land of the (genocided) native americans and of using black slavery.

I agree with him that what we need is neither left or right but revival of
traditional Indian spirit of free inquiry. Here he would do well to fight the blockades erected by Indian sepoys in service of mainly western imported theories and cartel agendas.

The main point Samir Chopra misses completely about my work is that its chief goal (and success) is to create a voice that wants to reverse the gaze to begin with. What specifically such voices (in the plural) will do cannot be anticipated, but such voices must emerge. The post-colonial Indian voice has failed because it was too much embedded inside the very fortress it claimed to topple. (In this respect I find Balagangadhara to have had very limited impact as he has tried to oppose from within the system and must obey its rules.) Post-colonialism, funded by the likes of Ford Foundation and others like them, has been a project to channel and domesticate such resistance.
So it matters not what I say, as long as its consequence is to create:
first a suspicion against the received wisdom on India from the academic
establishment; then experiments (of which mine is only one) to rejoinder; then attempts to construct alternative narratives. This is just the beginning of a very long term process. It has to start somewhere.


Brown Pundits