India, V.S. Naipaul declared in 1976, is “a wounded civilization,” whose obvious political and economic dysfunction conceals a deeper intellectual crisis. As evidence, he pointed out some strange symptoms he noticed among upper-caste middle-class Hindus since his first visit to his ancestral country in 1962. These well-born Indians betrayed a craze for “phoren” consumer goods and approval from the West, as well as a self-important paranoia about the “foreign hand.” “Without the foreign chit,” Mr. Naipaul concluded, “Indians can have no confirmation of their own reality.”
Mr. Naipaul was also appalled by the prickly vanity of many Hindus who asserted that their holy scriptures already contained the discoveries and inventions of Western science, and that an India revitalized by its ancient wisdom would soon vanquish the decadent West. He was particularly wary of the “apocalyptic Hindu terms” of such 19th-century religious revivalists as Swami Vivekananda, whose exhortation to nation-build through the ethic of the kshatriya (the warrior caste) has made him the central icon of India’s new Hindu nationalist rulers.
Despite his overgeneralizations, Mr. Naipaul’s mapping of the upper-caste nationalist’s id did create a useful meme of intellectual insecurity, confusion and aggressiveness. And this meme is increasingly recognizable again. Today a new generation of Indian nationalists lurches between victimhood and chauvinism, and with ominous implications. As the country appears to rise (and simultaneously fall), many ambitious members of a greatly expanded and fully global Hindu middle class feel frustrated in their demand for higher status from white Westerners.
Narendra Modi, India’s new prime minister and main ideologue of the Hindu-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party, is stoking old Hindu rage-and-shame over what he calls more than a thousand years of slavery under Muslim and British rule. Earlier this month, while India and Pakistan were engaging in their heaviest fighting in over a decade, Mr. Modi claimed that the “enemy” was now “screaming.”
Since Mr. Naipaul defined it, the apocalyptic Indian imagination has been enriched by the exploits of Hindu nationalists, such as the destruction in 1992 of the 16th-century Babri Masjid mosque, and the nuclear tests of 1998. Celebrating the tests in speeches in the late 1990s, including one entitled “Ek Aur Mahabharata” (One More Mahabharata), the then head of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (the National Volunteers Association, or R.S.S), the parent outfit of Hindu nationalists, claimed that Hindus, a “heroic, intelligent race,” had so far lacked proper weapons but were sure to prevail in the forthcoming showdown with demonic anti-Hindus, a broad category that includes Americans (who apparently best exemplify the worldwide “rise of inhumanity”).
A Harvard-trained economist called Subramanian Swamy recently demanded a public bonfire of canonical books by Indian historians — liberal and secular intellectuals who belong to what the R.S.S. chief in 2000 identified as that “class of bastards which tries to implant an alien culture in their land.” Denounced by the numerous Hindu supremacists in social media as “sickular libtards” and sepoys (the common name for Indian soldiers in British armies), these intellectuals apparently are Trojan horses of the West. They must be purged to realize Mr. Modi’s vision in which India, once known as the “golden bird,” will “rise again.”
Mr. Modi doesn’t seem to know that India’s reputation as a “golden bird” flourished during the long centuries when it was allegedly enslaved by Muslims. A range of esteemed scholars — from Sheldon Pollock to Jonardon Ganeri — have demonstrated beyond doubt that this period before British rule witnessed some of the greatest achievements in Indian philosophy, literature, music, painting and architecture. The psychic wounds Mr. Naipaul noticed among semi-Westernized upper-caste Hindus actually date to the Indian elite’s humiliating encounter with the geopolitical and cultural dominance first of Europe and then of America.
These wounds were caused, and are deepened, by failed attempts to match Western power through both mimicry and collaboration (though zealously anti-Western, Chinese nationalism has developed much more autonomously in comparison). Largely subterranean until it erupts, this ressentiment of the West among thwarted elites can assume a more treacherous form than the simple hatred and rejectionism of outfits such as Al Qaeda, the Islamic State and the Taliban. The intellectual history of right-wing Russian and Japanese nationalism reveals an ominously similar pattern as the vengeful nativism of Hindu nationalists: a recoil from craving Western approval into promoting religious-racial supremacy.
The Russian elite, created by the hectic Westernizing ventures of Peter the Great, was the first to articulate the widespread sense of inadequacy and failure created in societies trying to catch up with the modern West. In 1836, Pyotr Chaadaev argued in “First Philosophical Letter” that, “We belong neither to the West nor to the East, and we possess the traditions of neither.” His eloquent self-pity, which shook up Pushkin as well as Gogol and Tolstoy, inaugurated the semi-Westernized Russian elite’s tormented search for a native identity to uphold against the West.
In the 1920s, Russian thinkers exiled to Paris and other Western capitals by the Bolshevik revolution tried to reconfigure Russia’s place between Europe and Asia with a doctrine they called Eurasianism. While approving of a monolithic economy and one-party rule, these hypernationalists exhorted a religious revival and unity across Russia to combat evil influences from the immoral West.
In an astonishing development, their grandiose intellectual conceits have enjoyed both political imprimatur and popularity since the end of the Cold War, after Russia’s apparent deception by a triumphalist West. Today, while annexing Crimea and throttling domestic critics, President Vladimir Putin quotes the religious theorist Nikolai Berdyaev, author of “The Russian Idea.” And his cohorts in the media and the Orthodox Church circulate conspiracies that present the West as intent upon humiliating Russia with the help of NGOs, journalists, homosexuals and Pussy Riot.
The perils of such ideological inebriation had already been illustrated by Japan’s descent into unhinged anti-Western imperialism in the early 20th century. As Japan grew stronger, partly with the help of Western imperialists, only to bump up against their presence in Asia, the obsession with beating the West at its own game intensified. Like the votaries of the Russian Idea, many Japanese thinkers became as frantic about defining Japaneseness vis-à-vis the West as with championing strict state control of domestic society.
The catch-all concept of kokutai — which roughly translates as “national polity embodied by the emperor” — asserted Japan’s evidently unparalleled virtues. Philosophers of the Kyoto School, like Nishida Kitaro and Watsuji Tetsuro, made more ambitious attempts to establish that the Japanese mode of cognition through intuition was both different from and superior to Western-style logical thinking. Such supercilious nativism provided the intellectual justification for Japan’s brutal assault on China in the 1930s, and then the sudden attack on its most significant trading partner in 1941.
Today, against the backdrop of a severe crisis of capitalism, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, like Mr. Putin, is asserting an unapologetic nationalism. Vowing to “take back Japan,” partly by revising the country’s pacifist Constitution, and disowning its previously expressed guilt for wartime brutalities, Mr. Abe has stoked tensions with China.
This is just the kind of retrograde 1920s-style nationalist dogma that is making a big comeback in India, especially since last year, when Mr. Modi, a close ally of Mr. Abe, overcame the taint of various suspected crimes to launch his bid for supreme power. Interestingly, it is not the R.S.S.’s khaki-shorts-wearing volunteers but rather quasi-Westernized Indians in the corporate-owned media and mysteriously well-funded think tanks, magazines and websites who have provided the ambient chorus for Mr. Modi’s ascent to respectability.
India’s recent economic travails and diminished international standing have frustrated these rising Indians’ sense of entitlement, provoking them to lash out at such handy scapegoats as “racist” and “Orientalist” Westerners and Indian libtards and sepoys. Typical of their ersatz nativism is a book entitled “The New Clash of Civilizations,” which gleefully heralds India’s hegemony worldwide. It was written by Minhaz Merchant, the Anglicized former editor of a defunct lifestyle magazine called Gentleman and now a self-appointed publicist for the prime minister. Many such “Modi Toadies,” as Salman Rushdie calls them, had Western tails once, like the Harvard-economist-turned-book-burner.
Others still cling to those tails, such as the wealthy businessman called Rajiv Malhotra, hailed by Mr. Modi for “glorifying our priceless heritage.” Mr. Malhotra routinely puts out, from his perch in suburban New Jersey, popular screeds asserting that American and European churches, Ivy League academics, think tanks, NGOs and human-rights groups are trying to break up Mother India with the help of both dalits and sepoy intellectuals.
Lest he be accused of irrationality, Mr. Malhotra also claims that the intuitive Indian worldview is not only different from but also cognitively superior to the logic-addled Western outlook. Mr. Malhotra has worked up his own version of the Russian Idea and kokutai with some piffle about the “integral unity” of Indian philosophy, a notion that conflates very different Hindu and Buddhist traditions. In his North American redoubt, Mr. Malhotra runs workshops aimed at mass-producing “intellectual kshatriyas” (intellectual warriors).
The fantasies of racial-religious revenge and redemption that breed in Western suburbs as well as posh Indian enclaves today speak of a vast spiritual desolation as well as a deepening intellectual crisis. Even Mr. Naipaul briefly succumbed to the pathology of mimic machismo he had despised (and, later, also identified among chauvinists in Muslim countries). He hailed the vandalizing by a Hindu mob of the Babri Masjid mosque in 1992, which triggered nationwide massacres of Muslims, as the sign of an overdue national “awakening.”
There are many more such nonresident Indians in the West today, vicariously living history’s violent drama in their restless exile: In Madison Square Garden, in New York, last month, more than 19,000 people cheered Mr. Modi’s speech about ending India’s millennium-long slavery. But hundreds of millions of uprooted Indians are also now fully exposed to demagoguery. In an unprecedented public intervention this month, the present chief of the R.S.S., who wants all Indian citizens to identify themselves as Hindus since India is a “Hindu nation,” appeared on state television to rant against Muslim infiltrators and appeal for a boycott of Chinese goods.
Such crude xenophobia, now officially sanctioned in Mr. Modi’s India, seems only slightly less menacing than the previous R.S.S. chief’s wishful thinking about one more Mahabharata against demonic anti-Hindus. Japan’s expansionist gambles in China and the Pacific in the last century and, more recently, Russia’s irredentism in Ukraine show that a mainstreamed rhetoric of national aggrandizement can quickly slide into reckless warmongering. Certainly, the ruling classes of wannabe superpowers have spawned a complex force: the ideology of anti-imperialist imperialism, which, forming an axis with the modern state and media and nuclear technology, can make Islamic fundamentalists seem toothless. One can only hope that India’s democratic institutions are strong enough to constrain yet another wounded elite from breaking out for geopolitical and military manhood.
Pankaj Mishra is the author of From the Ruins of Empire, among other books.