Ashis Nandy and the Postcolonial Trap

Had William Hazlitt written his essay “On Persons with One Idea” today, he would surely have found room for the field of postcolonial studies. It is a field with only one idea: namely, that imperialism and racism are such dominant features of modern life, and had such a foundational role in the construction of our present society, that they inform every aspect of our ideas, culture, and history. Postcolonialism is, in theory, anti-hierarchical and anti-oppressive. But because it has only one idea, it can easily become oppressive in practice, and to quite a large extent. To show that this is true within the context of one postcolonial scholar’s book, The Intimate Enemy by Ashis Nandy, is the purpose of this essay.

Ashis Nandy might seem an unlikely candidate for such an accusation. He is a political activist and a major commentator on contemporary affairs, known for his championing of nonviolence and tolerance. One of Foreign Policy’s Top 100 Public Intellectuals, he has written about communal violence, particularly Hindu-Muslim riots and the emotionally charged landscape of nationalism. He is no friend to the Hindu right, which he has accused of being itself a product of British colonialism. All varieties of chauvinism are subjected to fierce criticism at Nandy’s hands, and he is a member of numerous human rights and civil liberties groups.

These views are decent and humane, and Nandy is no friend to injustice. Yet he is very much a member of the postcolonial movement, and it often leads him to support a blinkered traditionalism for no other reason than that it seems to be anti-Western and anti-modern.

His book, The Intimate Enemy, appeared in 1983, at a time when postcolonialism was flourishing and when its arguments must have appeared fresh and controversial, although they have now gone quite stale. In essence, Nandy is making a case against modernity, and against the entire project of secular liberal rationalism, which he sees as more or less inseparable from colonialism, capitalism, and all the aspects of modernization and development he finds objectionable.

Many of Nandy’s concerns about the modern world are quite understandable: it is what he would put in their place that is less clear. Nandy is mostly concerned with bureaucratization and the diminishing of individuality it entails. He is horrified by modern hierarchies of wealth and privilege, by the inequities of modern societies and the gruesome contrast between wealth and poverty which prevails in contemporary India. Most important of all, he recognizes that modern science, modern weaponry, and modern efficiency have made mass murder all the more easy and warfare all the more deadly. All of these criticisms are certainly valid and ought to be taken into consideration. What is less valid is the accusation that liberalism, secularism, or rationalism are responsible for these problems, and the corollary position that the Enlightenment experiment is bankrupt.

Nandy implicates the entire liberal worldview in aiding and abetting imperialism, and therefore sees fit to reject it. Its talk of equality and justice is a despicable lie intended to cover up its secretly hierarchical, patriarchal dimensions. It is an essentially inegalitarian doctrine masquerading as the very opposite, or so Nandy would have us believe. The liberal worldview privileges reason over tradition and superstition. In this sense, therefore, it puts power in the hands of an educated elite or a scientific, Westernized bureaucracy. It also can be used to justify imperialism as a humanitarian attempt to bring justice, knowledge, and scientific modernity to the backward regions of the world. That liberalism does these things is the crux of the postcolonial argument, and Nandy wholeheartedly embraces it.

In responding to this, we will leave aside the bizarre fact that Nandy is himself an active supporter of global liberalism, at least in some limited sense. Liberalism is the founding ideology behind the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), after all, which Nandy must theoretically support. He is, indeed, a member of the People’s Union for Civil Liberties, which is the most well-respected civil rights group in India and has been working for decades to protect democracy, secularism, and human rights, all of which Nandy criticizes stridently in his writings! This contradiction is something Nandy will have to work out for himself. What concerns us here are his arguments.

Nandy has erected a certain number of barriers to any successful refutation of his points: mostly in the form of bizarre evasions. One might like to accuse Nandy of being unfair in his attacks on liberals, of spreading misinformation, but this he admits to at the very beginning! His framework, he claims, explain his “partial, almost cavalier, use of biographical data and the deliberate misuse of some concepts borrowed from psychology…. The aim is to make sense of some of the relevant categories of contemporary knowledge in Indian terms.” (xiii, emphasis added).

Nandy’s own training is as a psychologist, yet here he announces his intention to misuse this training so that Indians might understand his points. It seems difficult to me to imagine anyone not finding this rude and objectionable. Surely the individuals whose biographies are about to be misrepresented have a right to feel angry, but so do all the Indians in the world who would insist that they can tolerate truth and fact, and don’t need to have important concepts in psychology misused for the sake of their understanding. What would Amartya Sen or Romila Thapar say to such a claim?

The above quote may be an instance of surprising honesty on Nandy’s part, but it makes it difficult to engage with his later arguments. One cannot be sure which of them are even accurate or properly documented. It also makes the entire task of criticizing Nandy seem absurd. I live on the other side of the world, after all, and come from a different cultural background than that of Nandy. Does this give me the right to misrepresent his life or his views? Should I rewrite the above to suggest that Nandy does not have reasonable criticisms of modernity but is rather a mindless reactionary? This latter would not be true, but it would make more sense to a Western audience, I have no doubt. On what ground would Nandy object to my doing so?

Another evasion on Nandy’s part appears later on in the preface, when he declares that “a purely professional critique of this book will not do. If you do not like it [I am, I’m afraid, very much in that camp] you will have to fight it the way one fights myths: by building or resurrecting more convincing myths. However, even myths have their biases.” (xiv).

Perhaps I am being dense, but I have a great deal of trouble understanding what Nandy could possibly mean when he says that even myths have biases. If I plan to construct a series of falsifications in order to attack Nandy’s book, which he seems to be suggesting I do, how could such an account be anything but biased? Had Nandy said that even facts can be biased, that would be a remarkable assertion, but to say that it is possible for lies to be biased is almost a tautology.

At any rate, I prefer to attempt a non-mythological critique of Nandy that engages seriously with his arguments, even if he does not regard such a critique as possible. This is because Nandy’s criticism of liberalism is now so widespread in academia and has formed the backbone of postcolonial scholarship. Those of us who would like to see a more liberal, tolerant world, in which people are not subjected to irrational cruelties and injustices, therefore need to be able to respond to it.

First of all, it must be said that some liberals, namely James Mill, but also John Stuart Mill and the other utilitarians, were supportive of imperialism, and that liberal theories of progress lent a certain credence to imperial designs. However, Western imperialism preceded liberalism by a long while, and such liberalism actually provided the first voice of opposition to it. In fact, imperialism is incompatible with liberal, universalist principles, if one truly takes them seriously. Montaigne, a proto-liberal if there ever was one, was driven to a profound hatred of cruelty and injustice by the deeds of the Spanish in America. The Conquistadors were not motivated by the principles of liberal humanitarian intervention, meanwhile, but by God and king. If any ideologies justified imperialism, they were belligerent, proselytizing religion and the chauvinism of monarchs. It was both religious intolerance and absolute monarchy, meanwhile, that the Enlightenment went about debunking, and that liberalism has always opposed.

Liberalism presupposes that all human beings are endowed with reason and conscience: this is on the first page of the UDHR, which Nandy supposedly defends. People may come from different backgrounds and may embrace different identities, yet they all may be approached on a basic level as reasonable creatures capable of treating one another decently and humanely. From this extends all of liberalism, right down to democracy. If one takes this seriously, as I said, imperialism is unthinkable. After all, imperialism is inherently undemocratic and authoritarian, and is based upon the assumption of unalterable differences between cultures which can only be overcome through force: Samuel Huntington’s Clash of Civilizations is the perfect example of how illiberal anti-universalism plays into the hands of militarists and chauvinists.

Universalism may make power-motivated imperialism illegitimate because it insists on the equal dignity and rights of all people. Yet, what are we to do when other societies commit grave injustices? Montesquieu’s The Persian Letters is a classic of liberalism. It is revolutionary in its criticisms of European societies and traditions, but also in its implicit assertion that both East and West can be criticized from the standpoint of reason and conscience. France may be heavily assaulted in the book, but the narrative’s true personal drama revolves around the Persian Usbek, and his relations with his numerous wives. The brutalities of the Persian system of government and of Islamic gender roles are criticized just as harshly as European societies in the book.

Even this early work of liberalism expresses the essence of the universalist outlook. We have a moral stake in all of the injustices of the world; we are just as implicated in those of other societies as we are in our own, and we must intervene to protect the victims from cruelty and injustice. This intervention must not come from Western ethnocentrism, but from a pan-civilizational awareness of shared humanity.

Certainly authoritarian imperialism and various realpolitick schemes which masquerade as humanitarianism are impositions, and involve regarding members of other societies as less than human. This, in turn, often results in grave human rights abuses (we may regard the massive civilian causalities of the Iraq war as a recent example), which are the very things liberals are attempting to avoid. If one were to truly approach global intervention with humanitarian goals in mind, however, such things could be avoided. The imperialistic tendencies of the Mills and of other 19th century liberals were a distortion of liberal values that could have been avoided: all these writers had to do was look to their liberal anti-imperialist master, Jeremy Bentham!

What is important to realize, however, is that imperialism is not the only evil in the world, even though it is a serious one. The failure to see this rather elementary fact characterizes a great deal of postcolonial scholarship. One must avoid imperialism, but one must not be so desperately fearful of intervening in other countries that one seals off the victims of cruelty within their respective nations and refuses to promise aid.

Nandy criticizes “Western universalism” and suggests replacing it with an “alternative universalism” based on traditional Indic concepts. What he fails to understand is that “Western universalism” is a contradiction in terms, as is “alternative universalism.” Universalism is simply universalism: it cannot be associated with a particular culture. Liberals use whatever traditions and sources are available to defend universalism, whether Western, Indian, or something else entirely. Certainly Amartya Sen, in his defenses of liberalism, refers not only to Western Enlightenment figures, but to the Buddha, various South Asian traditions, deliberative politics in Africa, and so forth. If Nandy were truly committed to universalism, he would make an argument similar to that of Sen. But instead, he attacks all those who have espoused universalist values and openly defends traditional, pre-modern societies. His alternative universalism is really, therefore, only a glorified particularism. It may legitimately attack the evils of modernity, yet it has nothing to say about the horrors of the pre-modern world, the caste system, traditional gender roles, or the superstition and narrow-mindedness of small communities.

But if one embraces this particularism, then why should one attack imperialism? Nandy criticizes egalitarian ideologies, the ideals of democracy and human rights, etc. as mere hierarchies and oppressions in disguise. In this he follows the lead of Foucault and similar postmodern thinkers, who find in liberal institutions little more than disguised bureaucratic power relations. But how does one know that such hierarchies are reprehensible if equality is not a goal? If egalitarian ideologies, democracy, and self-government are not legitimate ideals, why should it be the case, as Nandy maintains, that imperialism is so wrong? Along with the postcolonial theorists, he begins with the unexplained premise that imperialism is the greatest evil in human history, then proceeds to insist that the ideologies which might provide a grounds for attacking it—namely, the equal rights and dignity of all people and the value of self-determination—are themselves imperialistic! If equality, human rights, and democracy are not actually valuable goals, then Nandy should proceed to applaud imperialism, authoritarianism, and the triumph of might over right. Foucault at least was honest enough to pursue these ideas to their horrible conclusion, eventually backing the Ayatollah Khomeini and his reactionary movement. This is the end result of the assumption that equality and democracy can somehow be implicated in inegalitarian, undemocratic abuses.

Within The Intimate Enemy, there are many bizarre interpretations and discredited assertions, just as Nandy promised there would be. To take only one blatant example, here is his brief discussion of the 19th century social reformer Rammohan Roy: “Rammohan had introduced into the culture of India’s expanding middle class… the ideas of organized religion, a sacred text, monotheism, and, above all, a patriarchal godhead. Simultaneously, he had… [suggested] a new definition of masculinity, based on a demystification of womanhood and on the shifting of the locus of magicality from everyday femininity to a transcendent male principle.” (22) It may take one more time than it is worth to decipher that sentence, yet once one does so, one realizes the full extent of Nandy’s misrepresentation.

I know less about Roy than many, I am sure, and I would not doubt that there are legitimate criticisms to level against him. However, he was a decent person who was seeking to abolish the practice of sati, which involved the ritual self-immolation of a woman after her husband died, and to guarantee women some basic inheritance rights. While I’m sure he did not go far enough in his proto-feminism, he did attempt to guarantee a few basic human rights for Indian women. Yet according to Nandy, Roy was imposing a “masculine” worldview on a society which respected the “mystical” side of femininity. What this mystical side is is unclear, but Nandy seems to assume that rationality and critical thinking are distinctly male—I know many a feminist who would beg to differ!—while irrationality, tradition, and “magicality” are all female. Therefore a society in which women are subjected to irrational injustice and cruelty is deemed “feminine” while a post-Roy society in which women have a small degree of power and agency is a male imposition, by Nandy’s account. Would he declare Afghanistan under the Taliban to be a “feminine” society? Certainly femininity was properly “mystified” there, since women were so successfully sealed off from the rest of society!

Nandy is tempted, thanks to the entire spirit of postcolonialism, to attribute all of the world’s evils to imperialism. And because of this, he ends up tacitly condoning all of the world’s injustices which predate imperialism, such as patriarchy, religious intolerance, and the violence of tradition. Given Nandy’s personal views in his public life, he would no doubt be shocked to be accused of defending such things. But he has in fact fallen victim to the postcolonial trap: he has focused so exclusively on one injustice—imperialism—that he has rendered himself inured to all the other injustices in the world which are also crying out for redress.

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