Ashis Nandy and the Postcolonial Trap

Joshua F. Leach in Butterflies and Wheels:

Postcolonialism is, in theory, anti-hierarchical and anti-oppressive. But because it has only one idea, it can easily become oppressive in practice, and to quite a large extent. To show that this is true within the context of one postcolonial scholar’s book, The Intimate Enemy by Ashis Nandy, is the purpose of this essay.

Ashis Nandy might seem an unlikely candidate for such an accusation. He is a political activist and a major commentator on contemporary affairs, known for his championing of nonviolence and tolerance. One of Foreign Policy’s Top 100 Public Intellectuals, he has written about communal violence, particularly Hindu-Muslim riots and the emotionally charged landscape of nationalism. He is no friend to the Hindu right, which he has accused of being itself a product of British colonialism. All varieties of chauvinism are subjected to fierce criticism at Nandy’s hands, and he is a member of numerous human rights and civil liberties groups.

These views are decent and humane, and Nandy is no friend to injustice. Yet he is very much a member of the postcolonial movement, and it often leads him to support a blinkered traditionalism for no other reason than that it seems to be anti-Western and anti-modern.

His book, The Intimate Enemy, appeared in 1983, at a time when postcolonialism was flourishing and when its arguments must have appeared fresh and controversial, although they have now gone quite stale. In essence, Nandy is making a case against modernity, and against the entire project of secular liberal rationalism, which he sees as more or less inseparable from colonialism, capitalism, and all the aspects of modernization and development he finds objectionable.

Many of Nandy’s concerns about the modern world are quite understandable: it is what he would put in their place that is less clear. Nandy is mostly concerned with bureaucratization and the diminishing of individuality it entails. He is horrified by modern hierarchies of wealth and privilege, by the inequities of modern societies and the gruesome contrast between wealth and poverty which prevails in contemporary India. Most important of all, he recognizes that modern science, modern weaponry, and modern efficiency have made mass murder all the more easy and warfare all the more deadly. All of these criticisms are certainly valid and ought to be taken into consideration. What is less valid is the accusation that liberalism, secularism, or rationalism are responsible for these problems, and the corollary position that the Enlightenment experiment is bankrupt.