Asia’s Revolt against Empire


Book: From the Ruins of Empire

Author: Pankaj Mishra

Publisher: Penguin / Allen Lane

Price: 20 pounds

Pages: 368

It would be wrong to see the "re-making" of Asia, much less India, as a "revolt against the West". Asia has indeed been "re-built" on the ruins of colonialism, but not on the ruins of all that the "West" has come to represent. Asked in 1931, at Oxford, "how far" would he "cut off India from the Empire", Mahatma Gandhi replied: "From the Empire, completely; from the British nation not at all, if I want India to gain and not grieve."

So I have a problem with Pankaj Mishra's title, and the premise it is derived from. This does not mean I would not recommend the book for a reading. It is well written. There is scholarship in it, based on a reading of interesting texts and speeches spanning Muslim and Chinese Asia as well as some reading of Indian thinkers, especially Rabindranath Tagore. It is provocative, which in itself is a good reason to read a book.

But Mishra's is a deeply flawed worldview. The abhorrence of "Western" empires, which is necessary, automatically extends into an abhorrence of the "West", which is not at all necessary. That, however, is the lesser of my objections. Why we should privilege the writing of one Jamal Al-Din Al-Afghani (1838-97), the Muslim intellectual and polemicist of the 19th Century, as an "Asian" response to Western imperialism, and not a "Muslim" response to "Christian" rule is not at all clear to me. Al Afghani's "strange odyssey", as Mishra puts it, is the subject matter of a fourth of his book.

Then there is Liang Qichao (1873-1929), whom Mishra regards as "China's foremost modern intellectual", who too polemicised against imperialism, though in China's case "Western" imperialism was clearly a lesser evil than "Eastern" imperialism (a point that Mishra does not adequately recognise), given that even today more Chinese are willing to come out on to their streets in protest against Japan than Britain, much less the US, which they all seek to

... contd.

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