Contrary to popular perception, ingrained in the Indian national psyche of complacency, contemporary foreign attempts to seize control of India’s future trajectory is occurring mostly through indirect potential control. It is exercised by nurturing myriad collaborators within it though specific territorial assaults against its integrity. – Dr Gautam Sen
Intellectual hegemony has since time immemorial been a paramount vehicle for the exercise of political and socioeconomic power within society and between them internationally. A long line of intellectuals has observed the nature of the exercise of power, both political and personal, through the dominance of ideas. A recent history of the early Church by historian David Lloyd Dusenbery provides an authoritative account of the advance of Christianity through acrimonious debates over ideas propagated during the late third and early fourth centuries by major protagonists, like the anti-Pagan Firmianus Lactantius, a key imperial adviser to the first Christian emperor Constantine and the original progenitor Christian antisemitism. Another important Christian ideologue was the theologian and historian Eusebius of Caesarea to be followed later by the formidable late fourth and early fifth centuries trio St. Ambrose, St. Augustine, the Bishop of Hippo and another powerful ideologue of Christianity, St. Jerome.
In the modern world, the exercise of intellectual hegemony by the ruling order has been the subject of astute excavation by the Italian Marxist thinker Antonio Gramsci and a host of formidable thinkers of the so-called Frankfurt School and others, some of the most revelatory among them, Herbert Marcuse and Theodor Adorno as well as another pioneering French thinker, the highly influential Michel Foucault. A powerful post-modernist interpretation was subsequently unleashed by Jacques Derrida, who questioned and deconstructed the outward integrity of meaning in texts, his own oeuvre underpinned by the earlier work of the philosopher Edmund Husserl and the linguist, Ferdinand de Saussure. Yet, only modest attention has been paid to the practical consequences of the exercise of ideological power in the contemporary world over India’s place in it. The very exercise of this ideological power has dictated the boundaries of the debate, impaling the discourse on India in terms of narrow concepts like secularism that constrain serious understanding of its extant societal dynamics.
Interpreting the impact of dominant ideas on the imputation of India’s place in the world requires a prior understanding of the nature and exercise of political power between societies in the international arena. The key terms that encapsulate international relations are the compulsion towards dominance, duplicitous “bad faith” and their inevitable corollary of treachery. The practical implications of such a depiction of world politics are its abhorrence of a political vacuum in international relations that unerringly predisposes the subjugation of the weak by the strong and deployment of force, in all its dimensions, to achieve dominance and primacy. Indeed, it is significant that the ancient Greek synonym for man was soldier and the Roman empire that succeeded it was principally defined by the exercise of military power, which always remained its preeminent characteristic. The entire history of the Western world since has been inspired by and informed by this Greco-Roman legacy, whether it is imperial Britain or the Nazis or the subsequent US imperium. Islamic empires also adopted the antecedent practices of the eastern Roman empire they replaced as well as the example of conquered Persia, the militarised imperial alter ego of ancient Greece.
Without sentiment and prevarication, it might be noted that for over a thousand and more years the Indian subcontinent has exhibited attributes of a political vacuum, of divided and warring statelets, unable to resist challenges from better militarily endowed and determined marauders from the north. As a result, India has long been a potent pole of attraction for conquerors, enticed by its vast human and natural resources. The contemporary Indian situation is not fundamentally different from its long historical past despite the establishment of an outwardly modern statehood, with its various accoutrements of power and autonomy, from political and socioeconomic institutions to military capability. Thus, contrary to popular perception, ingrained in the Indian national psyche of complacency, contemporary foreign attempts to seize control of India’s future trajectory is occurring mostly through indirect potential control. It is exercised by nurturing myriad collaborators within it though specific territorial assaults against its integrity are also unmistakably visible.
The profound underlying latent divisions of the Indian polity have been laid bare in recent years, with major political regions declining to acquiesce to full participation in all essential dimensions of a singular nationhood. Why this has happened is a fascinating but separate question, but its reality can hardly be denied, with regional political parties blatantly refusing to comply with their constitutional obligations of belonging to a single nation. Some of them are almost also asserting quasi de facto independence, with their political instincts also plainly articulating foreign ideological and accompanying extra national political attachments. The welcome accorded to vast numbers of illegal migrants and granting them citizenship rights in some states is a startling expression of this challenge to India’s sovereignty. The recent attempts of the dominant political dispensation at the Centre to enhance a sense of greater common national purpose and loyalty have in fact provoked further serious popular dissent and accentuated separatist sentiment. The fractious history of the Indian subcontinent has reared its alarming head with unexpected vengeance and de facto regional separatism threatens to become the espousal of a de jure posture for it.
In this context, it is vital to understand the wider global ideological edifice, in all its extraordinary sophistication and complexity, that underpins and fuels India’s national divisions. The key feature of the ideological thrust of foreign adversaries to subvert India in order to exercise control over its conduct is the determined and systematic repudiation of its moral legitimacy and historical identity. Indirect control is the aspiration since physical inroads are, for the present, only feasible at the margins on India’s borders though a major setback along them could precipitate a cascade in the shape of the assertion of independence by some already restless regions. In the meantime, the ideological assault against India continues relentlessly and the original roots of its constant and widespread hostile deconstruction can be traced back to India’s tutelage under British imperial rule and the critique of Hindu civilisation by, in the main, the Protestant Church. A basic overriding contention, repeated by its adversaries like China, even today, has always been that India is comprised by many nations and a racially-inspired Brahminical ideology has sought to impose the primacy of an earlier band of conquerors, the Aryans, who have no greater legitimacy to claim India than subsequent conquerors, the Muslims and the Europeans.
The intellectual warfare against India occurs from innumerable venues in academia and the media. Indian domestic intellectual life itself is largely an expression of an unreconstructed colonial heritage and domestic discourses a mere echo of well-established historical critiques of Indian civilisation. They are constantly being renewed, acquiring real substance and momentum from intellectual assaults from abroad. The critical modus operandi of ideological assault is still inspired by the original essentially Protestant critique and denunciation of the legitimacy of the moral integrity of the heritage of ancient India to which its people might look for their contemporary identity. The international media’s depiction of India, almost in entirety, and its offensive on it today adopts a simple strategy, which is to slander and libel without respite and ignore the truth and any alternative narrative that might contradict its own blatant fabrications. This global media obtains additional legitimacy for its serial disinformation campaigns by paying individuals who enjoy personal prominence in society and are willing to do the bidding of India’s adversaries for payment and other forms of social recognition.
The Western academic discourse on India is the bedrock for institutionalising a negative perception of it among dominant global elites who refract and diffuse the public’s ideological outlook. Such an ideological orientation has two important operational features that function with potent sublimity. They are wholesale psychological intimidation and occupation of the intellectual space and its denial to those who do not conform to the extant narrative of assault against India. The practical consequence of such a situation is the denial of opportunity to enter the academic world through openly discriminatory recruitment policies, curbing of professional advancement of dissenters, hampering their ability to sponsor seminars and curtailing the ability to publish, especially in prestigious journals. The intimidatory psychology arises from the sheer weight of the established canon and the existence of deified names who underpin the Western intellectual environment in its totality. Their effectively divine stature always pervades any intellectual journey, which sets the parameters of even plausible dissent. This intellectual climate may not necessarily be the direct source of specific challenges to India’s integrity and political identity, but it empowers hostile protagonists to question India and all its evil works by providing the counterpart of generalised covering fire. An expert on philosopher John Rawls or Jacques Derrida can call out India’s human rights record on caste, though it may be without intrinsic merit, because the shadow of Rawls and Derrida loom large in the background to legitimise them socially.
The examples of intellectual intimidation range from asserting one’s identity as a leading scholar on Jacques Derrida and using the legitimacy arising from it to engage in slander by illegitimately and deliberately misleading audiences. One Columbia scholar engaged in virtue signalling by hyperventilating on the predicament of Myanmar Rohingyas, implying the imperative of admitting them to India, supposedly en masse, while the academic simultaneously expressed angst over the alleged murder of a Muslim in India in a dispute over the consumption of beef. One cannot recall if the same scholar ever found occasion to express concern for the plight of ethnically-cleansed Kashmiri Pandits, subjected to rape and murder or indeed comment on the horrors of the Rwandan genocide. Another LSE scholar has asserted the flight of Pandits from J&K was due to actions taken by the then governor Jagmohan. The duplicity and dishonesty persist with little prospect of rebuttal because the established intellectual space denies access to challenges through institutional control over who can speak at seminars and conferences. Thus, egregious libel is spread under the cloak of the high scholarship of experts on intellectual life. The fulcrum of the discrediting of Indian society is the allegation of innate hierarchical caste racism, stemming from a “false religion” and the multitudinous resultant spin-offs of everything, from patriarchy to inequality, which are supposedly validated by a fundamentally unethical conception of social relations in the Hindu world-view.
There has grown a shrill and urgent recent cry of loathing at the path India has ostensibly embarked upon under the leadership of Prime Minister, Narendra Modi. However, the entire discourse on the horrors allegedly unfolding in contemporary India are rarely identified empirically and examined in comparative historical perspective. Yet, academics in hallowed Western portals and public intellectuals have risen in virtual unison to denounce contemporary India’s supposed lurch in an appalling right-wing direction though, once again, the crimes alleged lack empirical pinpointing. Significantly, the academic chorus of faux intellectual hand-wringing seems to parallel a deeper historic unease among major foreign governments about the potential rise of India as an economic and therefore military power. It is easily forgotten that the current intense hue and cry about India long predates its ongoing political and economic dynamics. But the present multifaceted policy endeavours threaten the possible realisation of the goal of autonomy and military strength long sought by every post-independent Indian leadership that is apparently irking many abroad.
Intellectual life has always been an essential instrumental conduit in the pursuit of national goals of dominant powers, notwithstanding all pretensions to the contrary. The great strength of its contemporary manifestation is the sheer scale of the production of intellectual output that also institutionally integrates within it any critique of itself that presumes to question existing political order and societal arrangements. The latter phenomenon neutralises protest by also extending material and institutional succour to dissension. Thus, dissenters end up benefiting from complicit participation in institutions supervising intellectual labour that serve the larger goals of the state, including its traditional imperial ventures. The hapless individual from the third world only participates in this oversized intellectual enterprise by finding a feigned nonconformist niche that allows self-delusion about their ultimately comprador role. But they are in no position to challenge the grand narrative of the institutionalised intellectual colossus of the host nation. Once someone from the third world has stood in awe inside the Cambridge’s King’s College chapel or one of the grand libraries of Harvard or Oxford a thoroughgoing inner depersonalising is set in motion and nothing matters more to that individual than playing some bit part in this resplendent and indefinable eternal universe.
This Western intellectual colossus and its institutions are a full partner in imperial glory and propensity for genocide, undertaking research into deadly weaponry and engaging in espionage even as it permits a chorus of dissent at the margin. However, the radical denunciation of all things Indian by its own former citizens who espouse human rights, feminism, equality, religious freedom and pluralism to challenge the legitimacy of their erstwhile former nation are all functional to the real purposes of India’s foreign adversaries. It serves their goal of attempting to weaken the possible rise of India by discrediting purposeful governance in it. In the end, intellectual life remains an unavoidable adjunct of national goals for the dominant powers of the Western world. – Sunday Guardian Live, 5 June 2021
› Dr Gautam Sen taught international political economy for over two decades at the London School of Economics.