Review: From the Ruins of Empire; The Intellectuals Who Remade Asia

This was a long rolling rant I wrote 5 years ago while reading Pankaj Mishra’s book “From The Ruins of Empire; The Intellectuals Who Remade Asia“. The format is that I commented as I read the book. So early parts are comments on early chapters and so on. Quotes from Pankaj are in bolded italics. I am reposting today after editing it a little because the topic came up once again.

Spoiler Alert. since the “review” is really a very long rolling rant, written as I read the book, some people may just want to know this one fact: this books is NOT about the intellectuals who remade Asia. That book would have to start with people like Aizawa in Japan, the first Asian nation to be “remade”, but that is one nation and one set of thinkers you will not find in this book. Why? because this book is not about Asia, its history or its renaissance, it is about post-liberal virtue signaling. For details, read on..

Introduction: After being told that everyone from Orhan Pamuk to Pakistani Ambassador (and liberal feminist Jinnahist icon) Sherry Rahman is in love with Pankaj Mishra’s new book I have finally started reading it.
I have only read 50 pages so far but it is beginning to set a certain tone. And its not a very encouraging one. I am not impressed. At all. So Far.

On  page 18 he says: the word Islam, describing the range of Muslim beliefs and  practices, was not used before the 19th century. 

This is then negated on the very next page by Mishra himself. The only explanation for this little nugget is that Pankaj knows his audience and will miss no opportunity to slide in some politically correct red meat for his audience. There is a vague sense “out there” in liberal academia that Islam is unfairly maligned as monolithic and even that the label itself may be “Islamophobic”. Pankaj wants to let people know that he has no such incorrect beliefs. It is a noble impulse and it recurs. A lot.

Pankaj’s summary of colonial history is boilerplate and unimaginative. He
really has nothing new to reveal here. But he does seem to think (and, somewhat surprisingly, most of his reviewers seem to agree) that he is revealing new information and (to quote Hamid Dabbashi)”jolting our historical imagination and placing it on the right though deeply repressed axis. ”
This is very surprising. Are we to believe that Hamid Dabashi, a professor at Columbia, did not know this very basic outline of colonial history and had “deeply repressed it”? Anyone with any interest in history would know all this in much greater detail already. The only thing “new” here (and even that is not new any more) is a certain background hum of  “postcolonial snark” (a certain feeling of superiority based on supposed/implied willingness to defy “colonial stereotypes” and Western imperialism and its promoters).

There are several obvious errors as well. For example, Pankaj states that Muslim power.. had been the biggest losers as the British East India Company became the major power the subcontinent. 
This used to be a staple of British-Indian colonial historiography but is not really accurate. The Sikhs and Marhattas controlled more of India than any Muslim power by the late 18th century. While Turko-Afghan power in North India was a self-consciously Islamicate entity (also self-consciously colonial), it was breaking up and weakening throughout the 18th century. Large chunks of the country were in the hands of Hindu rulers (most prominently Marhatta, but also others, like the various Rajput rulers, Hill Rajas, etc) and Sikh rulers. These rulers frequently had Muslims in their service (and vice versa in the various principalities headed by Muslims; the postcolonial crowd is not  wrong about this point). The British, in some areas, did indeed get rid of Turko-Afghan rulers. In a others (Mysore comes to mind) they defeated Muslim rulers who were of Indian-convert origin rather than Turko-Afghan origin; and in several  others they got rid of Hindu and Sikh rulers.  Much of India was taken from those rulers, not from some generic “Muslim rule”.  My guess is that Pankaj is either not aware of this history in any detail, or he is pandering to his audience (who are especially sympathetic to Muslims, who are considered the top of the line oppressed victims of Western imperialism in the world today), and my inclination is to believe it is the latter.
In any case,  isn’t this very un-poco pomo (post-colonial, post-modern) when you think about it? The label “Muslim power”?  I thought the poco thing was to point out that this business of dividing Indian history into Hindu, Muslim and British periods was a British colonial reading of Indian history? And that the so-called Muslim rulers were just incidentally Muslim, while their states, and the politics of those states, were essentially secular.  Did Pankaj not get the memo?
I am inclined towards “pandering” as the explanation because he sometimes makes some very transparent efforts to make his story conform better to current postcolonial fashions. Having got on the case of Muslim defeat at the hands of the British, he ends this story by saying
“…finally subduing the great Muslim-majority lands of the Panjab in 1848″.  

Now, he may not be a great history buff, but even Pankaj cannot possibly be unaware of the fact that the “Muslim majority lands of Panjab” were firmly under Sikh rule since 1800 or so and it was a Sikh kingdom (albeit one with a likely Muslim majority population) and not a Muslim kingdom that the British conquered in 1848.
You may ask, dear reader, what is the problem with saying “Muslim majority lands of Punjab” instead of Sikh Kingdom of Panjab. Both are true (about this first, I will have to look up the figures, the Muslim majority was not overwhelming, especially in the greater Punjab of those days). Well, the problem is this: he does this because he wants to support his earlier framing of British rule as a (tragic) replacement of Muslim rule by the British. Saying “Sikh Kingdom” would take away from the desired end. It is a minor point, but it is a pattern. The overall propaganda requirements generally take precedence over mere facts with Pankaj.
This becomes obvious when you see his next claim. After mentioning the tragic fall of the “Muslim-majority lands of Panjab”, he goes on to talk about Syed Ahmed Barelvi’s Jihadist movement as follows:
“Over-running parts of North-West India, the jihadists were finally suppressed in 1831 at the battle of Balakot in 1831, which was to assume a tragic aura in South Asian Islamic lore comparable to the martyrdom of Hussain at karbala in 680 AD. 
It is a very telling sentence. The context in which it is written implies (without explicitly saying so) that this was all part of some significant Islamic resistance to British rule. Which is mostly untrue. Even Pankaj probably knows that while these jihadists were indeed anti-British (as well as anti-Hindu and anti-Sikh), no parts of British India were liberated by these jihadists. The areas “liberated” by Syed Ahmed were in what is now Pakhtunkhwa in Pakistan and he did not liberate them from the British, he liberated them from the Sikh ruler of Panjab after having declared a jihad against the Sikhs. And finally it was a Sikh army (incidentally, an army that included a predominantly Muslim artillery corps) that destroyed the jihadists at Balakot, after they had already alienated many fellow Muslims in Peshawar with their harsh rule. NO Karbala like mythology attaches
to these people and most Muslims in India probably do not even know about them. There has indeed been an attempt to resurrect their memory in Pakistan after 1947 as part of the Islamist project, but even there, to describe their status as “second only to Karbala in Islamist mythology” is utterly laughable. It too is a very small detail, but it is telling. Facts will not stand in Pankaj Mishra’s way. Be on guard.

P-40, para 2. Read it and marvel. Pankaj here says that Europeans thought Asians were suffering from decline and stagnation but the Asians were actually economically and culturally dynamic. And of course, PM puts “decline” and “stagnation” in scare quotes. Then he tells us how Asians really were well behind the Europeans in science, technology and organization and the Europeans, because of superior skills in so many crucial areas, mustered more power than the wealthiest empires in Asia .. a long list of examples of Europe’s extraordinary “pulling ahead” then follows. You really have to read the section to get the flavor of Pankaj’s problem here. He feels it is not a good thing (i.e., not politically correct) to say decline and stagnation when talking about non-Europeans. Yet his whole thesis is about relative decline and stagnation and attempts to set that right. This naturally leads to recurrent paradoxes and logical inconsistencies.

 He then states (while talking about this progress, which he does not recognize as progress):
“Even the unalloyed boon of modern medicine in the rising West turned into something darkly ambiguous in Asia when it helped increase populations in the absence of corresponding economic growth, compounding the problem of poverty. 
Read the above passage a few times. Think about it. Feel the love… and the incredibly confused thinking that must have gone into it. This too is a pattern.
He then starts talking about Jamal Afghani, who is his first example of “the intellectuals who remade Asia”. Where shall I begin? Let us begin at the beginning. Pankaj says:
Al-Afghani is barely known in the West today, even though his influence exceeds that of Herzen and, at least in its longevity, almost matches Marx. 
“at least in longevity”? What does that even mean? Well, I think I can tell you what it means. It means Pankaj is telling his fans that there are great Asian thinkers that they should know about, but that they have missed because of their Eurocentric education. Luckily, Pankaj is here to set them right. He knows how popular this approach is likely to be within his liberal European (and even more so, Europeanised Desi) audience. He gets them, even if he does not get Afghani.
For the Jamaluddin Afghani section, I suggest perusing these links first to get an idea of how he is generally remembered in the region (and in particular in Islamist circles), then compare with PM’s version.
Now here is what Pankaj has to say about him:
p-53.  he traveled to India in late 1850s to continue his education, and
spent a considerable part of the next decade there, in among other places,
Bombay, (which had a large community of Persians) and Calcutta. it was during this time of fierce Indian assaults on the British and the latter’s brutal
backlash that his intellectual heritage of revolt from the Babis began to turn
from a local into a global ideology of resistance.

By now you know the drill; the “large community of Persians” in Bombay was Parsis (Zorastrians), themselves refugees from Islamist persecution, not people Afghani would especially associate with, and not people inclined to revolt against the British (or anyone else at that point in time).
The “heritage of revolt from the Babis” is a stretch. While Jamal Uddin Afghani publicly opposed the Bahais as a threat to Islamic unity, he did have contact with some Babi exiles in Baghdad and so there is some notion (not a widespread one) that he may have learned something from them even as he disapproved of them.  He was generally promiscuous in his alliances and was accused by practically every secret service of being a spy in the service of their respective enemies (the Russians thought he was a British agent, the British thought he may be a Russian agent, the Iranians were sure he was working for their enemies, the Ottomans thought he was working for theirs, and so on), but his life and career offer no hint that he was ever a Babi or a Bahai supporter, quite the contrary. But Pankaj is building up all aspects that he knows will work with his audience and that, and not some sort of attempt at historical accuracy, is the priority. They are the forerunners of the Bahais. They and the Bahais are very far from an anti-Western-imperialist revolutionary movement  and are currently maligned in the Islamic world as imperialist agents, not regarded as anti-imperialist revolutionaries. (See here for details and compare this information with PM’s casual insertion of Babis into his narrative here and earlier).
PM, in short, is relying on the ignorance of his Western readers (and Westoxicated Asian readers) to follow him along his narrative of anti-colonial struggle without too much concern for nuance or historical accuracy.
The next few pages contain so much crap that I cannot bore you with
it. Poets are quoted out of context. Events are selected to fit the
story. It is not wrong, it is “not even wrong”. And throughout, the
dominant feeling is of a writer who knows his audience and is carefully
crafting his words to fit their preconceptions.
Take these fairly typical sentences:
Afghani still lived in the old city where Muslims in turbans and
flowing robes still study the Koran and the Hadith. But elsewhere Turks wore
the Fez ….and an imperial degree issued in 1856 (“a day of weeping and mourning for the people of Islam” according to some Turkish Muslims) had permitted church bells to be rung in the city for the first time since the conquest of Constantinople in 1453. Indeed, churches palaces hospitals, factories schools
and public gardens were advancing relentlessly to the shores of the Golden Horn
and the sea of Marmara, squeezing out traditional Muslim neighborhoods.
You can almost see Pankaj’s tears as traditional life is squeezed out by newfangled crap like allowing church bells to ring and building schools and public gardens! All the confusions of modern “large-carbon-footprint” intellectuals are manifest in this passage. Modernization was terrible. Modernization was needed. Modernization was Afghani’s aim. Modernization was a tragedy. And it is all the fault of perfidious Albion (he uses the term, by the way).
The Ottoman section is so confused that I am surprised anyone gets past
this drivel. The Ottoman empire was sick; it was not really sick at all; it had fallen behind; All talk of falling behind is imperial mythmaking. it needed reform; reform was killing it (this last may be true, but not in the way Pankaj thinks).  The claims are contradictory and confused. That anyone read this and kept going and then wrote those laudatory reviews can only mean that “anyone” just wanted to have his or her prejudices massaged and paid no great attention to mere details.
To sum up this section, Pankaj has picked Jamal Uddin Afghani as his hero in the Islamic Asian section. Afghani is a man who opposed the reformist Sir Syed (a man who actually had long-lasting impact on the Indian Muslim community, far greater, for good and evil, than anything Afghani achieved); who declared himself, falsely, an acquaintance of the even crazier Sudanese Mahdil who offered his services in turn to Turkey, to Russia, to the
British, to Iran (and got on the shitlist of all of them); who floated harebrained schemes that few people actually joined; who supported self-destructive fanatical Islamists but opportunistically invoked the Vedas in front of a Hindu audience; who got carried away with blasphemous rationalism when debating Renan (and then hid it from his Muslim audience); who ended his life as an ineffectual guest of the Turkish
Sultan. And most important of all, who had practically no lasting impact on Islamic theology.
Why? I think the key is to realize that Pankaj is crafting a shared (shared with his intended audience) anti-colonial pose/fantasy (mainly anti-British, he seems completely untroubled by the Russian empire in Asia, which is also very telling) and is following Afghani around from one half-baked idea to the next. Meanwhile, the actual 19th century world carried on, little affected by Afghani then and little affected by him now (though he has been adopted as a mascot by diverse Islamist groups, he is not a major source of their ideology or practice). Afghani’s tomb in Kabul meanwhile has been repaired with American “war on terror” funds. Oh the humanity!
My point is this: when Pankaj says
“It is impossible to imagine, for instance, that the recent protests and
revolutions in the Arab world would have been possible without the intellectual and political foundations laid by Al-Afghani’s assimilation of Western ideas and his rethinking of Muslim tradition” 
He is relying on his audience being ignorant of the actual intellectual and political foundations of the various Islamist movements fighting in the Arab world today.  The “assimilation of Western ideas and rethinking of Muslim tradition” are less a feature of contemporary Arab Islamism and more a thing that Pankaj would like them to have. (that the structure or methods of these movements are in many ways modern, hence to a large extent Western in origin, is not the same thing as consciously assimilating Western ideas and rethinking Muslim tradition).

A minor sidelight in the Islam section:

Akbar Ilahabadi was an Indian Islamist poet who is often (and most approvingly) quoted in this section. In reality, he was a traditionalist, shocked by most “innovations” in Islamic thought or practice (e.g. the appearance of women outside of purdah was a pet peeve) but not so shocked at being in British service (he spent his entire working life in government service, retiring as a session judge and being given a minor imperial honor as a reward for his services). His position of honor in PMs book is dependent on carefully excluding aspects of his life that do not fit the anti-colonial guerrilla war Pankaj is waging a hundred years after the fact.

Meanwhile, Pankaj has this to say about the Mahdi in Sudan:

“in the Sudan in the 1870s, a charismatic leader calling himself the Mahdi emerged at the head of a millenarian movement to beat back not only the Egyptian Khedive but also his British allies. Scoring one brilliant victory after another, he promised to Islamize the entire world”.  Afghani, Pankaj reports, becomes an eager follower of the Mahdi. “he had clearly and vehemently turned against the kind of accommodation to Western power and tutelage that many Muslim elites had previously advocated.”

We know by now that even the craziest and most fanatical scheme against the British empire or its puppets is going to get PM’s approval. But if you know more about Akbar Ilahabadi, you could be forgiven for thinking that “accommodationist” or “puppet of the British Empire” is a list in which Akbar Ilahabadi would surely be included by Pankaj if he was not already in use as poster boy of anti-colonial heroism (Akbar being far more “accommodationist” in how he lived his life than even the Sudanese who tried to resist the Mahdist revolution).

The Chinese and Indian/Hindu Section.
Pankaj is a great fan of Islam as the virile tradition that is “challenging empire” but other Asians should not relax. There is a Tagore section after a
detour through China (its Marxist-Leninist-Stalinist revolution and
hyper-capitalist industrialization forgiven as it prepares to do battle
against “empire”).

In many ways, the Chinese and Tagore sections are even weaker than the
Afghani section. The same confusion remains paramount. Thinkers in China and India are said to be responding to Western dominance but Pankaj does not want to say they were dominated.  Every time he shows how weak China or India were in the face of Western invaders, he also wants to say that they were never as weak as portrayed in his favorite straw-man, “the dominant narrative”. He also consistently underplays all examples of sectarian or religious violence in Asian countries (unless it can be blamed on Europeans), but pounces on every example of violence or duplicity in the Europeans. It is all perfectly calibrated to suit the tastes of his eager (and forgiving) audience. As long as their buttons are pressed, Pankaj (and they) seem to have no problem with button A being contradictory to button B.

Modern China was built on traditional China and big influences include Sun Yat Sen’s nationalism (explicitly described as an opponent of Liang by Pankaj himself),  Mao’s revolution (its debt to Marxism-Leninism-Stalinism acknowledged by his followers and his detractors, his debt to Liang, mostly imaginary) and Deng’s counter-revolution (his debt to America to be found in the 100,000 Chinese he sent there to study, his debt to Liang?). If and when modern capitalism and nationalism fails in China and if and when some sort new synthesis  (whatever that is, Pankaj has
not enlightened us about the new faith that will replace “the dominant
narrative”)  replaces it, maybe we will be forced to say something else.
But for now, how is modern China in any way the creation of Liang Qichao more than it is the creation of Sun Yat Sen, Mao or Deng (and through them, of several Western thinkers, including Marx, Lenin and Adam Smith)?
Pankaj fails to make that case and yet labels him one of his “intellectuals who remade Asia”. How so?

Modern India meanwhile is the product of British empire building, an
earlier Mughal empire, a Turkic colonial empire (the Delhi Sultanate) and an earlier Gupta empire that may be described as the charter state of Hindu-ist India.  More recently, its shape and form owe much to the successes and failures  of people like Gandhi and Nehru, and  the modern political party (the Congress Party) that they led (albeit with skilful use of Indian cultural memes by Gandhi).  Yet the person Pankaj has chosen as one of his three “intellectuals who remade Asia” is Tagore. How exactly can the last 100 years of Indian history be described as the fruit of Tagore’s intellectual labors? if Tagore had not even existed,would India look that different?

I am sure Tagore was a good man (and in his own naive way, not critical of Marxism-Leninism-Stalinism, not to speak of gentler Western models) but how exactly did he “remake Asia”?

Pankaj himself describes the failure of Liang and Tagore to do much (and their disappointment at the end of their lives). Maybe he
sees their main achievement as the fact that they had their doubts about Western notions of progress (more so than Nehru or Mao) and warned that these notions may include hidden disasters. And indeed, some of these dangers have become more manifest today, so in retrospect they may seem somewhat prophetic on this score, but the crucial fact is that any rethinking that is taking place today owes little or nothing to these particular individuals.  Their influence in their own time was limited, their detailed programs were either missing or included as many errors as prescient predictions (Tagore and Stalinism, for example). The responsea offered by all three thinkers to the Western “dominant narrative” is different and only partly accurate. It needs a lot of selective reading to make them part of the same trend in anything more substantial than “somewhat skeptical of Western civilization”, but maybe PM’s audience knows even less than he does, so he gets away with it?

PM clearly feels that the demise of “Western” notions like the secular nation state is now imminent, so insofar as they were skeptical about this notion, those intellectuals are about to be vindicated. But real vindication
would involve being right in more detail than just some vague notion that “materialistic Western civilization” is doomed. It would also involve being at least partially right about what happens if it fails.  And in any case, with nation states and capitalism still very much alive how can these brave intellectuals be said to have “created modern Asia” (as the title claims)?

What follows amplifies (and sometimes just repeats) some of these points and includes excerpts from an interview with Pankaj. You can stop here if you wish 🙂

To get some idea of Pankaj Mishra’s thought process, take a look at these excerpts from a recent interview with fellow prophet of doom, Hamid Dabashi of Columbia University:

Hamid: “Postcolonialism is a mode of knowledge production. Colonialism happened, then postcolonial nation states emerged, and they become conducive to the production of ideologies – nationalism, third world socialism, Islamism, etc. These ideologies have exhausted themselves and postcolonialism has ceased to produce knowledge. This is what I call the end of postcolonialism and the result is postcolonial leaders running for their lives across North Africa and the Arab world.”

Now the world is rather large. Which parts exactly have moved beyond
the ideologies of socialism, nationalism, Islamism etc? (interestingly, capitalism is not mentioned in that list; perhaps sensibly enough).
China is no longer nationalist? India has dissolved the nation
state? Japan has moved beyond Nationalism? What does this statement really mean? A few (very few) dictators in the Arab world, long since past their sell-by date, have been deposed (3 at last count, out of 30 or so Arab countries, one in the rest of the world if you count that exemplar of post-post-colonialism, Zimbabwe). In most cases they have been replaced by new regimes trying to stabilize their nation-states in ways completely predictable in the modern paradigm, or by anarchy. What does Hamid’s question even mean?

Here is PM’s humble response:
“I would date my political awakening in many ways to that particular visit (to
Kashmir), where I was confronted with the debris of the postcolonial ideology. I saw how a postcolonial ideology of secular nationalism had turned malign and had become extremely oppressive for the four million Muslims of Kashmir, who had embodied at some point – and they still do – a cosmopolitan idea of culture, a cosmopolitan idea of society. Here they were being asked to conform to a certain form of postcolonial polity which claimed to be secular but that
actually concealed a very strong Hindu majoritarian element.”

I invite Indian friends to have a go at this one. Start with “postcolonial ideology of secular nationalism” versus the Kashmiri Muslim idea of  ” a cosmopolitan idea of culture, a cosmopolitan idea of society.”

In any case, if Kashmir had already thrown off the Indian yoke and become some sort of cosmopolitan post-state  alternative to the malignant nation-state then we would have had to sit up and take notice. As it is,even if this Muslim revolt had succeeded, (it shows no signs of doing so, I am just saying even if it did) it would almost certainly lead to a modest enlargement in the size of nationalist Islamist Pakistan at the expense of nationalist putatively secular India. In a more ambitious scenario, it could even trigger the collapse of modern India (the one Pankaj doesnt like too much), but what would follow that? I submit that what would like follow is a violent free for all that would probably entail Pankaj spending much more time in London than in Mashobra. But it would still not negate whatever it is that Pankaj thinks it has already negated about the modern world. Yes, the straw-man of peaceful, perfectly secular, perfectly just, perfectly-formed nation states would go down in flames. But the actually existing world of nation-states indulging in violence, territorial grabs, religious violence and so on would remain unsurprised even if parts of it in the Indian subcontinent are violently rearranged. Whatever revelation Pankaj had in Kashmir, it does not seem on the verge of fulfillment to me.

Keep in mind that I am NOT saying that secular nationalism etc cannot
be malign. But actually existing A needs to be described accurately, then
perhaps replaced by actually possible B. PM’s description of actually existing A seems to be all too frequently overpowered by his intense desire to see a modern Western “materialist” civilizational catastrophe. As he himself put it in this interview:

“The old paradigm of “The West” having reached the summit of human achievement – modernity – with everyone else catching up, lies exploded due to various crises not just within “The West” but also the sheer scale of environmental crises that are about to overwhelm large parts of India and China who have elected to follow that particular path of development and globalisation”

Since this apocalyptic vision is already mainstream in the Western Left (currently waiting for global warming to finally do what years of revolutionary intellectual effort have failed to accomplish), it is accepted without question by his audience. But out there in the real world, modern civilization, even in its vicious aspect, is closer to what Marx predicted it would be:

“The bourgeoisie cannot exist without constantly revolutionising
the instruments of production, and thereby the relations of production, and
with them the whole relations of society. Conservation of the old modes of
production in unaltered form, was, on the contrary, the first condition of
existence for all earlier industrial classes. Constant revolutionising of
production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting
uncertainty and agitation distinguish the bourgeois epoch from all earlier
ones. All fixed, fast-frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable
prejudices and opinions, are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is
profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses his real
conditions of life, and his relations with his kind.”

This is not necessarily a happy state. Maybe “we” were better off without it. (that is a big maybe though, since it has to take into account that most of “us” were peasants living uncomfortably close to the edge of famine in the good old days). And maybe new ways of social and communal life will arise from the smoking ruins of the old (or, perhaps in a few luckier cases, will evolve relatively peacefully from the old). One can certainly make a case against bourgeouise triumphalism. It can even be an Islamist case or a Hindutvadi case or one of a thousand other cases that have been made in the past (within Western civilization and outside it) and continue to be made today but what exactly is special or especially influential about these three intellectuals? And where has their vision (such as it was) successfully replaced the “dominant paradigm”?

Incidentally, in the same interview PM also says about the Indian emperor Akbar:

“Someone like Mughal emperor Jalal-ud-Din Muhammad Akbar, nominally a Muslim emperor and yet incredibly syncretic. Someone who knew he was presiding over a multi-ethnic, multi-racial, multi-religious reality. These are examples of suppressed histories that we don’t really talk about much or that don’t form part of the dominant narrative.”

First of all, this view of Akbar the Great as a great syncretic ruler (correct or not is a separate issue) has been around since the 19th century! British historians described him in exactly those terms, as did Nehru and many many Indian nationalists. What dominant narrative? what suppressed history?

Another interesting thing about Pankaj: his heroes OUTSIDE India tend to be the same kind of people he cannot stand INSIDE India. Afghani, with his pan-islamist dreams (with a reformed and modernized Islam in place in a Muslim empire that can match the West in scientific and military terms, not just in some airy-fairy spiritual realm) is good in Pankaj-land (the same goes for Chinese and Japanese nationalists), but Savarkar, with similar nationalist-revivalist dreams about Hindu India is not?  It is something to think about.

In summary, the core claim of this book is that these were the intellectual who remade Asia. How so? Jamaluddin Afghani was a serial impostor who tried to sell his services to every empire of the day (British, Russian, Turkish, Persian, Egyptian) and failed in every one of his harebrained schemes. His efforts had no detectable impact on the rise or fall of the British empire. His attempts at creating some sort of modern Islam, neither Shia nor Sunni and able to meet the Western challenge, have not become the dominant form of resistance in the Islamic world.

It is a tremendous stretch to say that Afghani was somehow the prime mover of the Islamic revivalist trend. That trend existed (and still exists) because the Islamicate world retained a self-image of ideal unity and worldly power and reacted from day one to “objective conditions” that
did not conform to their self-image. There is a long history of Ottoman
attempts at “catching up” with the West by revitalizing their ideology and practice. Mishra himself makes tangential mention of those attempts (though he tends to empathize mostly with those who completely rejected Western knowledge and insisted on an “authentic” response). Similarly there were multiple Persian attempts at reform and re-invigoration. Afghani would approve of some of them. All of them came and went how so far they did without him. Allama Iqbal’s attempt at a modern yet authentic Islamic revival owed little or nothing to Afghani. He admired Afghan, but his ideology, such as it was, was his own, not derived from Afghanin. In any case that vision has now petered out after Saudi money pumped up the
more “authentic” return-to-purity version.

I can see that some people love Mishra because they think colonialism and imperialism were bad and he is anti-colonial and anti-imperialist, so he must be good. Now I can imagine a Leninist willing to use him (while laughing at him behind his back), and if you are that kind of Leninist, carry on. But other than that kind of instrumental usefulness, he is not a good guide to what actually happened and what is happening now. You would learn more about the past from reading Wikipedia.  I am not saying colonialism was good (or bad, for that matter). I am just saying things were rather different in too many details and his framework is a very 21st century liberal Westoxicated framework, mixed (sometimes awkwardly) with some specifically Indian Left-Liberal talking points. It is not a good enough guide to what actually happened.

PS: I have some (even less charitable) thoughts on why this book strikes a chord:
1. With 100 safe years between him and actual events, Pankaj can now play heroic anti-colonial crusader and his elite (Western and Desi) readers can play anti-colonial fanboys, with nothing serious at stake. It is a win-win for everyone. Britain’s empire is long gone. So is the (frequently subtle, occasionally harsh) pressure that Special Branch could apply on those misbehaving in the empire. While it was not always gentle, ice-pick-in-Trotsky’s-brain was not the usual Special Branch style…most of the time a couple of agent provocateurs, a few informants and the likelihood that people like Maulana Shaukat Ali and Maulana Mohammed Ali will embezzle Khilafat Committee funds was enough. If I remember correctly, it is stated somewhere in Francis Robinson’s book on Muslim separatism in North India that a junior functionary reassured his boss not to worry about the
Anjuman e Khuddam e Kaaba (society of servants of the holy Kaaba) because the Mohammeddans will inevitably have trouble with financial proprieties and that will take them down. Special Branch knew what it was up against.
2. Most reviewers have no detailed knowledge about those times. Tagore
specialists may disagree with his Tagore section but find nothing objectionable about his Afghani stories and vice versa. And all of them know nothing about the Chinese guy.

9 thoughts on “Review: From the Ruins of Empire; The Intellectuals Who Remade Asia”

  1. Is there a possibility that PM's weakness in History is owing to a lack of degree? His degrees are and a M.A. in English literature? He never took a course in History since tenth grade. He spent much of his career writing semi-fictional literature like Butter chicken, and travel, which, are not in any way related to history. I think a lack of grounding in history leads to elementary mistakes in history.

  2. Good analysis, but too long – matching the original wishy-washy, PM. Could have been split into several parts, each dealing with a limited scope of points being analysed.

  3. Infact, right from 1848 till 1947 the Muslim elites of Punjab were the biggest supporters nd allies of British in the sub continent.

  4. All this wordy self-torture (and torture for anyone who could wade through the verbiage of this blog-post) because someone praised some book? The author of this blog has indeed too much time on his hand and some strange grudge (or envy?) that needs venting. I am sure this is not the end, and the venting will go on until the blogger's grudge tires plays itself out.

    1. You should check out his Outlook post. He has nothing to say other than to run both Pankaj Mishra and Arundhati down based on his impressions of them. IMO, having nothing to say is a whole lot worse than not having anything new to say, which is what he accuses PM and AR of. Indeed, this gentleman seems like someone with too much time of his hands and a grudge (envy?) that pricks him much.

  5. (currently waiting for global warming to finally do what years of revolutionary intellectual effort have failed to accomplish)

    Really good piece!

  6. Fantastic takedown, as always, Omar!
    By the way, this bit by Mishra ji really had me startled (though on hindsight shouldn’t have):

    “the sheer scale of environmental crises that are about to overwhelm large parts of India and China who have elected to follow that particular path of development”

    The guy is a raving Malthusian…


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