Tuesday, 18 November 2014

Enemy Mine - The Ugliness Of Cultural Arrogance

Australia and India signed a defence agreement today during Indian PM Narendra Modi's visit to Canberra.

Narendra Modi and Tony Abbott in Canberra

A couple of thoughts went through my head as I read the news, the foremost being how Samuel Huntington's Clash of Civilisations had taken yet another interesting turn. The other was that this seemed to be a replay of that underrated science fiction movie starring Dennis Quaid and Louis Gossett, Jr., Enemy Mine.

Enemy Mine is a story of how two individuals belonging to different species (humans and Dracs) that are at war, are forced to cooperate when they both crash-land on a planet with a hostile environment and vicious native fauna. Suddenly, their own differences seem inconsequential, and they finally become good friends.

An ant-lion of enormous proportions is only one of the dangers facing our mutually antagonistic heroes

A pragmatic basis for cooperation: "You are ugly, Davidge. But there are things out there that are uglier than you."

Australia has not traditionally viewed India as a natural ally. Indeed, Australia considered the expansion of Indian naval power in the 80s to be a threat! (I was a student in India at the time, highly politically aware, I might add, and I remember being quite offended at the inexplicably hostile attitude of what I viewed as a fellow democracy.)

In retrospect, that was not surprising given the understanding now afforded by Huntington's thesis. As a naive student, I might have seen the world in terms of democracies and non-democracies, but I was not to know that civilisational identities run far deeper. Australia belongs to and identifies strongly with Western civilisation, and an even narrower sub-group within it called the Anglosphere. India is not only not a Western country but the proud flagship of the distinct and much older Indic civilisation. It does not belong in the club, and so any increase in its power would naturally be viewed as a threat by the members of the club.

However, in recent times, a shift in Western attitudes seems to have taken place. The threatening rise of yet another non-member of the Anglosphere club has resulted in the club relaxing its rules for membership, it would appear.

Something out there that is uglier to Western eyes than an Indian elephant

Witness Tony Abbott's address at Queen's College, Oxford in 2012:

As with all the countries that think and argue among themselves in English (that these days include Singapore and Hong Kong, Malaysia and even India), what we have in common is usually more important than anything that divides us.

It sounds to me like the grounds are being laid for an invitation to join the club.

Huntington had referred to Russia and India as "swing civilisations", meaning that they could either side with Western civilisation or with other non-Western civilisations such as the Sinic or Islamic ones. It appears that the threat from China (and perhaps from Islamism as well) is now high enough for the Anglosphere club to open its doors to India. Speaking English has given India a second-class passport into the Anglosphere club.

As evidence of this, note that even this welcome is being afforded on terms that are purely Western.

Tony Abbott said in his speech welcoming Modi in parliament,
Australians admired the way India won independence – not by rejecting the values learned from Britain, but by appealing to them; not by fighting the colonisers, but by working on their conscience.

The reader will discern that even when describing the seminal moment of India's rupture with Britain, Abbott is emphasising the influence of Britain on India, rather than acknowledging India's non-violent struggle to be based on its own inherent civilisational values. The land of Buddha and Mahavira, the culture whose homegrown philosophy of Yoga has Ahimsa (non-violence) as its first and foremost Yama (ethical rule), has no need for Britain's civilising influence! India was not just a civilisation in terms of physical infrastructure but civilised in a deeply human sense long before the badlands that became Britain could lay claim to any such description. After all, Gandhi did not owe his non-violent style of agitation to his training as a barrister in London. His legal training might have helped him craft specific strategies to take on the Empire, but his fundamental philosophy came out of his exposure to living examples of non-violence in his childhood, such as his mother who would not kill a scorpion. Viewed through this lens, the cultural blindness that the London-born Abbott displayed here was breathtaking. You can take the man out of Britain, but you cannot take Anglocentrism out of the man.

In Abbott's eyes, India acquires legitimacy only from its characterisation as an English-speaking country that has imbibed Western cultural values. There is no effort to accept India as an equal on its own unique civilisational terms. Any defence agreement signed is therefore to be viewed not as one between equals, but as an oath of allegiance administered by a Western nation to a non-Western one that agrees to submit to Western values.

It's a testament to the intellectual poverty of Australia's current crop of political leaders and commentators that no one has noticed this glaring statement of cultural arrogance, much less seen fit to point it out.

India and the West can do business with each other not because India is now Westernised, but because the human values independently evolved by each of them happen to be compatible. Enough is known about Western values, but not quite enough is known about Indic ones, it would seem. Indian civilisation has been based on philosophies that acknowledge unity in diversity (Rig Veda 1.164.46, "Truth is one but the sages speak of it by many names") and emphasise universal brotherhood (Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam, or "the world is one family") even as they encourage the exchange and conflict of ideas (Purva Paksha, or a form of debate that mandates looking through an opponent's eyes). The civilisation could not have survived and evolved otherwise. It deserves to be given its due, not a condescending pat on the head for learning human values from the West.

Australians admire the way India won independence [...] by appealing to [the values learnt from Britain]

Can you see why that sort of praise can be viewed as insulting?

Much is made of the idea that Western civilisation owes its character to its "Judeo-Christian" roots That concept does have validity, even if Judaism and Christianity were long at each other's throats, and the vaunted "separation of church and state" was nothing but the Hebraic and the Hellenic aspects of Western civilisation being forcibly kept apart like squabbling children. Civilisations influence peoples and the conduct of nation-states. The Indic civilisation with its homegrown principles of unity in diversity, universal brotherhood and the acceptance of other viewpoints, intrinsically influences modern India, whether by the mundane non-event of a billion diverse people not erupting into civil war but staying together as a united nation, or India's uniquely non-violent freedom struggle, or India's leadership of the Non-Aligned Movement during the Cold War. (The Judeo-Christian value of "Thou shalt have no other gods before me", in similar fashion, results in Bush-era policies like "You are either with us or against us".)

[None of the above is intended to imply that the Indic civilisation is perfect, or superior to Western civilisation. Three glaring Indian weaknesses are superstition, caste-based discrimination and the poor status of women in society. These require India to look at itself through Western eyes to effect a change. Thankfully, this purva paksha is already happening, albeit slowly.]

For India, today's defence agreement with Australia no doubt represents an important alliance from a national security perspective given its own apprehensions about China, but it is not to be taken as a sign of having "arrived" in any sense. India will only truly arrive when its allies demonstrate through word and deed that they acknowledge and respect it as a distinct non-Western civilisation with independently evolved human values.
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