Pankaj Mishra – Neo Narodnik Turn

Pankaj Mishra, a very well read commentator and the author of a forgettable novel whose main character was, according to one reviewer, emotionally dead, seems to be the latest convert to neo- narodism, (mis)reading the case of Doosri Radha as “a sign of individual resistance”.

And almost every day the newspapers carry signs of individual resistance to a homogenising modernity. The police officer donning the robes of Radha is not only self-consciously harking back to Wajid Ali Shah, the last great ruler of Awadh, who also dressed up as Radha and whom the British denounced as effeminate before deposing him. In his androgynous dress, he is also rejecting the role required of him by a hard, hyper-rational world.

The spiritual guru refusing to part with his holy staff is claiming his right to individual dignity of a higher order than that provided by a national security state which spouts endless nonsense about “terrorism” and requires its citizens to live with constant paranoia and fear. India today is full of such “irresponsible fools”. They hint why the country will not be fully modern for a long time, and why this may be a very good thing.

It is not clear why the case of Doosri Radha should not be considered as one of an exception or a deviant case and why it needs to be compared to Wajid Ali Shah’s behaviour.

Mishra has ended his essay with what should have been its starting point. He needs to explain why would India not being modern be such a good thing, after all. In the absence of such an explanation, his words carry little more than a rhetorical flourish.

His stance needs to be seen in the background of a wider battle of ideas and politics that is going on in India.

It was in the 1980s that the last remnants of the so- called Nehruvian consensus broke apart. The 1990s saw the emergence of liberalization and a one- sided globalization- the mainstream discourse both in politics and in the realm of ideas has been thereafter been dictated by these phenomenon. The ruling ideas of every age, Marx had insightfully written, are the ideas of the ruling class.

The subsequent reactions to these have been from (1) the egalitarian modernizers i.e. the communists of the Old Left- by and large continuing the Enlightenment tradition, however archaic these may be worded as and (2) the counter modernizers or the Neo Narodniks, who oppose modernization itself. Some of the latter derive their ideas from post modernist trends in the West.

But many of the non- modernizers like Bhiku Parikh derive from elements of Mahatma Gandhi’s thought most elaborately laid out in Hind Swaraj. Louis Fischer, in his biography of Lenin had pointed out why neo- Narodism, an ideological trend that the Russian Marxists including Lenin had pitilessly criticised from a Marxist viewpoint (“What the Friends of People are…”), holds a much stronger sway in India.

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5 thoughts on “Pankaj Mishra – Neo Narodnik Turn

  1. Alok

    I remain somewhat ambivalent on the whole modernity debate. there have been some very eloquent critics of modernity, the greatest among them I think was Kafka who saw modernity emobodied in a hyper-rational super-structure oppressing the individual.

    I am not sure if doosri radha case can be considered a case of genuine and honest self-expression crushed by the hyper-rational, authoritarian power structures but I can understand where Mishra is coming from.

    I still remain devoted to the scientific method as the one and only method of finding out the truth but remain ambivalent whether society should be organized from top down based on some rational and theoretical principle.

    btw, Are you familiar with the work of french philosopher Michael Foucault? I haven’t read anything by him but he has written a book on madness called madness and civilization, which argues (I think) that madness is defined and stigmatized to perpetuate existing power structures in the society. and that rationality is itself an instrument used by authoritarianism.

  2. Alok

    I liked this para that you quote in the review…

    The idea of emancipation was closely linked with the agenda of modernity,” he avers. “Emancipation of man from the tyranny of tradition. But then, it is no longer possible to deny that modernity itself may prove to be a trap. Its mega-structures, bureaucracy and irresistible technology often deny man’s authentic autonomy. Because the story of modernity is not simply the story of well-fed, well-clothed men; it is also the story of intense agony — loss of self and communication and relatedness. The fact is that even when Bacon and Decartes shape my mind, my heart cannot escape Gandhi and Ramakrishna. This is my ambiguity, my contradiction… despite this ambiguity, I am becoming more and more inclined to those who critique modernity.” This, however, contradicts what the title indicates.

    and I am laughing at the idea of “spiritual economics”… what could that be? 🙂

    Also this idea of indian exceptionalism is a complete nonsense.

  3. bhupinder

    Michel Foucault has contributed to understanding of the power structures that go geyond that of state power. His Madness and Civilization and also the History of Sexuality are important works and also the Birth of the Clinic.

    Similarly, Derrida too – the father of deconstruction, both have very important insights not explored by previous Marxist theory. To me, both add to the heritage of Marxism and are not opposed to it, just as existentialism did.

    Funny as it is, but neo Gandhism or neo- Narodism hold a lot of appeal for some Indians, people like Bhiku Parikh, Pankaj Mishra and even Avijit Pathak (he is one of the better young Indian sociologists).

    You may also enjoy Gandhi’s Hind Swaraj, Gandhi’s ideas in this book sound nothing short of ridiculous.

  4. Alok

    Yes I saw, you had mentioned Hind Swaraj in your influential books article. I have not read Gandhi in detail but I don’t find his ideas, specially economics and society, interesting at all. He was a great leader, yes, but his status as an original thinker is grossly overrated.

    I mentioned Foucault because I thought Mishra was taking a Foucaultian line although he doesn’t menions his name. It is diffucult to reach a consensus on what the norms of a rational human behaviour should be or even whether it is indeed desirable for society to function properly to have everybody behave “rationally”, that is as defined by some dominant majority.

  5. bhupinder

    Frankly, I wouldn’t read too much into Pankaj Mishra. He is good to read for the range of his reading, but little else.

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