In Conversation

Pankaj Mishra with Hirsh Sawhney

India’s pursuit of superpowerdom has been cheered on by the US media as well as the country’s own mainstream press, but writer Pankaj Mishra’s powerful portraits of the subcontinent pierce through this chauvinistic fog. His first two books, Butter Chicken in Ludhiana (1995), a travelogue, and The Romantics (2001), a novel, examined modernity’s ambiguous influence on provincial India. An End to Suffering (2004), his third book, is an enlightening blend of history, philosophy, criticism and memoir that uses the Buddha’s life to scrutinize the cornerstones of contemporary society. His latest work, a collection of essays entitled Temptations of the West: How to be Modern in India, Pakistan, Tibet and Beyond (2006), is a compelling mix of travel writing and reportage. Last year, Rail Contributing Editor Hirsh Sawhney spoke with Mishra about the ‘War on Terror’. Their conversation was a part of London-based Wasafiri’s “Cultures of Terror” issue.

Rail: In Temptations, you elucidate hypocrisies in modern ideologies and with politicians. India’s Indira Gandhi, a definitive Congress Party (CP) leader, seems like a precursor to the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the Hindu nationalist party that would dethrone the Congress and represent its ideological opposition. America’s Jimmy Carter, a member of the allegedly less militaristic Democratic Party, was actually the US leader who began to surreptitiously infiltrate Afghanistan and support the Mujahadeen. What do these contradictions tell us about politics and modernity?

Pankaj Mishra: The most important thing they tell us about is the power of overwhelmingly big impersonal institutions, which are entirely creations of the modern world. The bureaucratic institutions of the nation-state did not exist before the modern era, and these institutions have a kind of unstoppable momentum…People say power corrupts individuals. But I think it’s more subtle than that. There are certain processes already in motion, and individuals are led on by those processes. Carter may have made mistakes on Afghanistan and elsewhere, which was largely the doing of his National Security Advisor, but he couldn’t help but play out the Cold War which was started by his predecessors. We know how helpless and powerless someone like Lyndon Johnson was. He wanted to get out of Vietnam, but he felt he just couldn’t do it without damaging the Democratic Party. You couldn’t afford to be perceived as weak on communists, and opposing communism was the ideology on which the American ruling class rested its whole legitimacy.
Whether we are talking about America or India, I think this whole question of the hypocrisy of modern ideology has to perhaps be posed differently. What kind of processes are at work within these nation-states and between nation-states in the larger geo-political area that make people seem so hypocritical? Look at the larger role in the world America found itself in after the Second World War, when it emerged as the richest, most powerful country. Its only rival was the Soviet Union. So suddenly it had to press all these buttons about how it is facing a threat from totalitarian communism, and that it had to fight it. Yet despite professing that it was promoting democracy and defending the free world, America began to look hypocritical, because what it was actually doing was fighting to maintain its pre-eminence in the world.

Rail: So if one ideology or power ceases to exist, an equally feckless one will be born. Hypocrisy will be a constant force in modern civilization.

Mishra: I think so. Even the American intervention in the world after the Second World War really comes about at the end of another process, which is European—particularly British—dominance of the world. This dominance entailed a different set of hypocrisies. And we’re witnessing the rise of countries like China, in which another set of rivalries is being initiated—another set of geo-political conflicts, with its own ideological deceptions, conclusions and lies.

Rail: Speaking about ideological deception being used to maintain power leads us quite naturally to the ‘War on Terror’. The Bush and Blair governments claim to be defending their people and modern civilization from violent, religious fundamentalists, yet their actions indicate otherwise. This ‘War’ seems to have become an international phenomenon, and governments throughout the world espouse its rhetoric. What’s been the effect of this globalization of the ‘War on Terror’?

Mishra: The very phrase ‘War on Terror’ is grossly exaggerated and misleading. To blur all the distinctions between various insurgent groups—some of whom are secular, some of whom are radical Islamists, some of whom are somewhere in-between—is an absolutely idiotic blunder. At the same time, it’s a necessary mistake if you’re looking at things from the perspective of the United States or Britain, where you’re fighting to preserve a certain kind of hegemony that you’ve had for a long time. You need to ideologically unite large, diverse populations behind you. Tell them we are facing an existential threat quite apart from a physical one and that our values are under siege. Without those processes of self-legitimization, these societies would be in an even deeper crisis. Unless you know that the values you live by are the most superior ones in the world, you have a scenario like in America during the 1960s, where large numbers of people believed that their government really represented something terrible and wrong. That doubting of one’s own country and its values, which really scares conservative elites, was brought about by the disastrous mistakes of Vietnam but then some muscular Reaganism ended that moment. I think we’re moving towards more awareness now, only very slowly. A large number of people are quite unsure about what they really stand for and what their country represents, because of what you call the hypocrisies in the policies and the actions of these governments. Since 9/11 this process of critical inquiry has really accelerated. Until that point, people who systematically questioned the policies and claims of political and business elites were largely confined to the marginalized left, and they could be easily dismissed. People like Noam Chomsky, Susan Sontag or Gore Vidal. Now after the catastrophe of Iraq they sound almost mainstream. I mean, the editor of Vanity Fair these days sounds like Gore Vidal.

Rail: So do you think the paranoia involved with the Cold War or the ‘War on Terror’ might be key to a nation’s cohesiveness and power?

Mishra: I think that the kind of rhetoric about terrorism, radical Islam and totalitarianism is indispensable for the moral health of these societies. We need to feel energized by the possibility that we are facing a determined enemy who really hates us and our values—the real ‘other’ of our societies. Not to do that would be to recognize that we actually share a lot in common with this particular other. We would see how much radical Islamist movements are a creation of certain forces of Western modernity itself. How much they are a creation of imperialist interventions in certain parts of the world. There is a need to make it plain that we have nothing to do with these people and they just act out of irrational hatred and rage against our great and successful civilization…And it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy in the sense that people who are being described as or picked upon as being terrorists—or simply feel that they’re being picked upon—feel empowered by affiliating themselves with these larger violent movements, if not literally then through imaginative, intellectual ways. Every time there’s a strike against America elsewhere, people feel a kind of gratification that the superpower is getting a bloody nose.

Rail: So the ‘War on Terror’ seems to be creating false binaries in our minds that aren’t grounded in reality. And it’s not just a question of the West misapprehending the Muslim world. A rather simplistic anti-Western sentiment is becoming popular in various places. A sort of Occidentalism, if you will.

Mishra: Absolutely. This rhetoric of the ‘War on Terror’ is creating conceptual entities in our heads which really have no independent reality apart from them being a creation of paranoia and fear. It’s an extremely dangerous process. This whole idea of the West itself is so diverse. The United States, Germany and France all have different policies. Britain is of course being led into the ‘War on Terror’ because of Blair and New Labour’s belief that they have to side with George Bush. But for an ordinary Muslim out there, there’s a kind of hatred or intensity of political emotion towards a monolithic West that is sweeping the world right now. And it’s not just Muslims. Look at the way Chavez is greeted by rapturous crowds everywhere—in the Arab world and in China; even India when he went to Jawaharlal Nehru University [a prestigious, left-leaning Indian university]. And the way this anti-Western sentiment manifests itself is not actually leading to the creation of pragmatic politics or attacking violence and exploitation in the world today. Cheering Iranian president Ahmadinejad or saying that Sheikh Nasrallah of Hezbollah is a wonderful man really doesn’t get you very far in terms of an active or effective alternative to the American style of politics or economy.

Rail: Osama Bin Laden isn’t a good alternative to George Bush.

Mishra: Exactly.

Rail: Throughout the world, those involved with resistance to modernisation—either intellectually or physically—identify the West or the US as the imperialist aggressor that is the source of their woes. Yet this seems naïve and counterproductive.

Mishra: Imperialistic processes are not actually originating from one imperial centre; these centres are now spread all over the world. For someone fighting for the rights of landless peasants in Bihar, it makes no sense for him to target the United States or the West. What about the alliance, for instance, between American political and business elites with Indian business elites which is now in front of our own eyes? The indigenous big industrialists coming to your area and throwing you off your land, because they want to set up a mine or a plant there? Or the retailers like Wal-Mart creeping into India with Indian partners. This is the great subtlety of these kinds of impersonal forces. It’s very difficult to identify the enemy, and that’s why we choose the easiest enemy, or the enemy who’s easy to identify. But the enemy is all over the place. It’s not just one big bad person or country…I think these battles have to be local.

Rail: It seems like the elite ruling classes of developing countries might be using the ‘War on Terror’ as a licence to repress their citizens and facilitate a certain kind of modernisation or globalization.

Mishra: Definitely. I think states and their comprador-elites are complicit with the United States in the process of turning their countries over to corporate and business interests. Any kind of opposition to this can be branded terrorism. We see that happening everywhere—in China, in Russia—wherever there are governments that do not really enjoy much legitimacy. And even when they do enjoy a degree of legitimacy, as in India, it’s very important for them to somehow crush these movements, because they instinctively perceive them as serious threats. For instance, there are the Naxalites of India [a revolutionary communist movement born in West Bengal that has gained popularity in rural regions]. India’s Prime Minister Manmohan Singh describes them as the biggest internal security threat that this country has ever faced, because of terrorism. And I think it’s his instinctive sense which is telling him that this is much more serious than Kashmir. Kashmir can be contained; Gujarat can be contained. But Naxalism can spread, because it is about something else. I think Manmohan Singh senses that it’s a challenge to globalization—a challenge to what India’s become in the last fifteen years, a horribly unequal society in which many people are enraged because they’ve been promised so much and delivered very little. One thing about modernity—especially capitalist modernity—is that it’s very generous with promises. All of the media are giving us this message that you can make it. You can be like us. So the rate of frustration is even greater. You are given this impression that you can also ‘do it’, and then you find the way blocked. I think there’s a rage that’s now growing in large parts of India, where the people are spontaneously organizing themselves into mass movements. And I think it’d be a total mistake to see this as a law and order problem. That’s basically the elite approach to this. To classify it as a law and order problem, send in the army and paramilitary forces and crush it.

Rail: There is a certain short-sightedness in dealing with these types of uprisings everywhere in the world. Is it possible for politicians to sit down and make some decisions that would assuage the fallout of modernisation and globalization?

Mishra: It’s an interesting question…How to break free of patterns of development and ideologies set by the modern West within the nineteenth century and then institutionalized around the world? How to break free from those particular models of development and economic growth which, apart from other things, cause an incredible degree of environmental devastation and created the most violent century in history? We’re trapped into this like sleepwalkers walking through a terminus of history. This sounds like a mind-boggling idea, but it is hard to avoid the conclusion that we do need some kind of massive turning point.

Rail: Like what?

Mishra: I don’t know. Maybe it’s already around the corner. Perhaps an economic crash of some great scale. Because things did change after the Depression in America. A new thinking on a whole range of issues emerged. There was a lot of emphasis put on providing welfare to the poor. The New Deal was born, which shaped and influenced a whole new generation of activists, intellectuals, bureaucrats and politicians. But I don’t know what, apart from an economic crisis, can bring about fresh thinking on these matters.

Rail: I just read an article by Amartya Sen in the Little Magazine’s globalization issue, in which he suggests that by making some readjustments to the global economy, the world would become more just.

Mishra: I think that’s an optimistic vision which somehow neglects the fact of globalization actually creating inequalities. Creating poverty is not something that’s an unfortunate side effect of globalization. It’s almost an essential part of much of the process. So it’s not as if we create wealth and then we take care of the needy and the poor. You need the poor. In his new book Planet of Slums, Mike Davis makes this very clear. Whether it’s India, Brazil or Bangladesh, slums are necessary for the development of these economies and for the type of economic growth they are seeking. You cannot do away with them. Making British Petroleum or Shell more environmentally conscious—these types of fine tunings that are constantly being attempted—are all admirable in their own ways. But I don’t know whether they can actually affect large-scale change.

Rail: In Temptations, you speak to people who were disenfranchised members of their society. Yet you doubt whether the modernity you’ve embedded yourself in and benefited from would be something that would actually be good for these people—something they’d necessarily want. I can only infer that a utopia full of middle-class consumers wouldn’t be desirable in your eyes.

Mishra: First of all, the whole fantasy of a world of middle-class consumers has been proved to be a destructive one. Look at the effort it takes to keep 200 million Americans in middle-class comfort. The price that the rest of the world pays in terms of resources and environmental destruction makes such a fantasy unsustainable. How can we even begin to think about one billion Indians or more than one billion Chinese living at the same level of affluence and consumerism without thinking of total global devastation and wars of unimaginable ferocity? And not just over oil, but over water, which is going to become the scarce resource. The other point you raise is about modernity in its most attractive forms, such as metropolitan life in London or New York. When someone is accustomed to a kind of community living, a kind of close interdependence upon either members of their family or their friends, I think they would find that life kind of alienating. I have always sought to escape that kind of community living, because I felt it was suffocating. I felt that I had to become an individual. For me, Western metropolitan modernity has offered all kinds of professional means to fulfill that idea of individuality. But I’ve recognized that there are a lot of people who don’t want that. They might feel individuality as a burden. All of Dostoevsky is about that—these half-modern Russians unable to deal with the burden of individuality and turning to either religion, terrorism or some form of political extremism.

Rail: Dostoevsky’s exploration of modernity’s effects on individuals seems very relevant today.

Mishra: I think it’s a process we now see occurring with Britain’s Muslim communities. To a large extent, the alienation caused amongst these communities—particularly the youth—is not just the effect of these horribly wrong foreign policies being pursued by Tony Blair. It also comes out of a sense of disenchantment with the kind of existence that their parents have created with great effort and struggle. Their parents have come to England as penniless immigrants and created this life for them, and the youth find that this life is empty. And we really have to take that disenchantment seriously and not just see it as an expression of radical Islam. This feeling is real. A lot of Westerners also feel that there is something missing in contemporary life. I think we have to learn to acknowledge that deeply-felt need for something else apart from the world of production and consumption—for forms of life that have been rendered unsustainable and untenable by modernity…

Rail: Some people like Mahmood Mamdani suggest that we need to stop using the word ‘terrorism’ to describe the violent actions of insurgent groups or extremists. The phrase ‘political violence’ would be more accurate and empowering. It allows us to consider the violence of so-called fundamentalist groups with the same lens that we use to view governments. When we talk about Kashmir or Iraq, however, it seems that rather than avoiding the word ‘terrorism’, it might be useful to simply widen the scope of what this term refers to. Terrorism isn’t just inflicted on the world by people with guns or beards but also by governments.

Mishra: Terrorism would then include the firebombing of German and Japanese cities and the devastation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Those were very cruel acts of terrorism intended for civilian populations with very clear political objectives. I’m actually more in favour of expanding the definition of terrorism from individuals and small groups to larger, modern nation-states using terroristic means.

Rail: Politicians and the media often mistake contemporary religiosity or fundamentalism as a throwback to pre-modern times. Yet you describe the Taliban as the bastard children of the West rather than barbarians from the Middle Age. Why?

Mishra: When you look at the recent history of Afghanistan there is, other than the Taliban, no force there trying to unify the country or to create a nation out of its patchwork of ethnic communities. Why did they emerge when they did in the mid-1990s? To ask that question we must look very closely at how Afghanistan has been dealt this terrible hand by the Soviet Union, the United States and its immediate neighbor, Pakistan. The country consisted of various tribes, a subsistence economy, agricultural communities and herders. A small educated number of people started fantasizing about modernisation. Of course, this being part of the Cold War era, they had to take sides, and they ended up siding with the Soviet Union. There were splits within the communist party in Afghanistan. Eventually, the Soviet Union intervened. Then they pushed through this very badly-conceived, oppressive programme of modernisation, put all the girls in schools and killed all the Muslims who protested. So you had a mini-genocide which is hardly ever talked about. Hundreds of thousands of Afghans were killed during that first process of Soviet-led modernisation. Then, of course, you had resentment within these traditional tribal communities, and they threw up their own commanders and Mujahadeen leaders. The Americans, in their wisdom, decided to support these groups—the more radical ones among them. At that time radical Islam was not a threat; it was actually an ally against the Soviet Union. And then the Saudis joined in, and they had their own agenda. They wanted to be the leaders of the Islamic world, and they were feeling insecure after Khomeini had come to power in Iran. They wanted to run down Iran. So there was a confluence of interests in this thus far neglected part of the world, and what it ended up creating was a massive, amazing mess that the Taliban was left to sort out.

Rail: So a combination of internal and external forces gave rise to the Taliban and, to a certain extent, there was a certain void that they were filling when they first started to seize power.

Mishra: There was a need for the Taliban in Afghanistan at that particular moment. This has always been something we forget when we talk about anachronistic medieval eruptions. Afghans felt that they’d gone too far down the road of chaos, mayhem and random violence, and that they needed to restore some order back into the country. And that’s why the Taliban emerged, became rapidly popular and cut across ethnic loyalties. Of course, there was real oppression under the Taliban, so there was a degree of popular support when the Americans first bombed them.
Forces like the Taliban are products of certain political processes set in motion by the West. Processes that create chaos and poverty instead of development, growth and progress—processes of the Cold War.

Rail: The Cold War affected so many Third World countries. But the Afghani example, which has come to define the contemporary world in a certain way, is so stark. What in Afghanistan led to such an extreme situation as opposed to Nicaragua? Many would argue religion has something to do with it.

Mishra: I think it’s the stark contrast in the natures of the ideological forces in action there. You had a pre-modern community of tribal societies, and then you had some of the most modern weapons technology available, first through the Soviet Union, and then through the Americans. I think perhaps the fact that these worlds are so fundamentally incompatible at one level, that when they clash as they did in Afghanistan, they could only have produced a 9/11. The fact that Afghanistan did not have a significant intellectual class meant that there were no mediators in the encounter between this pre-modern world and this very aggressive modern world. It was just a head-on collision, which then produced this radical Islamist ideology. Before this, people didn’t really have ideologies. People were loyal to their tribe and their regional communities, but they didn’t have these kinds of overarching ideologies that were introduced into Afghanistan by the Saudis working with the Pakistanis. So the way in which ideologies also became globalized during this period and assumed these political forms has something to do with it. I think radical Islam assumed its most political form in Afghanistan during the mid-1990s, which then attracted people like Bin Laden to it. It then became this very powerful ideology.

Rail: Is radical Islam a more destructive force than, let’s say, Naxalism in India?

Mishra: If I were speaking from the point of view of Western security, I would say that the threat of radical Islam is vastly exaggerated. In terms of numbers, the quantity of people who came to Afghanistan and are the real Jihadis—like Bin Laden and those around him who tagged along afterwards—is low. These are the people who have this desire to create an Islamic Caliphate and overthrow nationalist regimes around the world. This kind of lunacy is confined to a very small number of people. But, as you were saying before, this overblown rhetoric of the ‘War on Terror’—religions being singled out, the bombing of Lebanon—has inevitable side effects on Muslim communities. Among them there’s this widespread suspicion that there’s a war being declared upon Muslims in general, which then creates emotional support for the activities of these radical Islamists.

Rail: Which in turn spawns Western fear.

Mishra: Exactly. This whole idea of radical Islam being an ideological movement on the same scale as Nazism and communism is deeply foolish. An elemental distinction is not being made there, which is that to be a force on the same scale as Nazism and Soviet communism, you first need a modern nation-state. You need to have a base. Even when Al Qaeda was based in Afghanistan, Afghanistan was still a primitive country. It didn’t have the kind of armies that Hitler could unleash across Europe or the Soviet Union could unleash across Europe and Asia. It didn’t have the resources or the industrial infrastructure. Without the underpinning of the modern nation-state, fascism is rhetoric. It’s hot air. And to think that these people living in caves at the Afghanistan/Pakistan border have the same kind of destructive potential as Hitler did, or the Soviet Union with its nuclear arsenal, is just idiotic. These people are being hunted everywhere they go. It’s ludicrous to think that fugitives can create a totalitarian mass movement of the kind that German fascism certainly was.

This is an excerpt of an article whose final and definitive form was published in Wasafiri Volume 22 Issue 2 © 2007 Hirsh Sawhney. Wasafiri is available in print and online at: http://www.informaworld.com/wasafiri

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Hirsh Sawhney

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