Spectre of Occidentalism: Expressing Disdain for Everything Western is the Country's Latest Fad

Having imbued the Western ideas of individual liberty and responsible government, and having adopted the institutions supporting those ideas, expressing disdain for everything Western is not just ingratitude; it is also the apogee of cantankerousness.

A spectre is haunting India — the spectre of anti-Westernism. It is everywhere — in discussions on education (all problems are because of Macaulay), history (distortions were carried out by imperialists), culture, folktales, urban myths, and increasingly economy. This becomes evident from the recent remarks of Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman and Chief Economic Adviser Krishnamurthy Subramanian.

Sitharaman carried the Budget papers in a red bag with the national emblem on the front. This was a breach of tradition: hitherto finance ministers had carried their papers in a briefcase. When asked about the red bag at the press conference immediately after her Budget speech, she breezily responded that she found the briefcase a “colonial hangover”. Subramanian was quick to comment that this was a departure of slavery from Western thought. A day earlier, the CEA had expressed reservations about the authenticity of the “traditional Anglo-Saxon view of the economy”.

Lest we conclude that anti-Westernism is an obsession of the saffron establishment, we must recall the past. In April 2010, Congress leader and former Union minister Jairam Ramesh had termed convocation gowns at universities as “barbaric colonial relics”. In 2004, the Left was against the appointment of Western consultants by the erstwhile Planning Commission. The truth is that we are all anti-Western now; indeed have been for quite some time.

In Indira Gandhi’s era, there was a mysterious, omnipotent, and evil ‘foreign hand’ that, we were told, was responsible for every affliction the country suffered from. A joke those days was that it was responsible even for the population problem!

Before her, there was VK Krishna Menon, former defence minister and Nehru’s alter ego. He made a career out of anti-imperialism — the pathology in which Occidentalism got expressed in those days. Before him was Mahatma Gandhi who, when asked about his views on the Western civilisation, said, “I think it would be a good idea.”

In a nutshell, anti-Western feelings and proclivities have always been rife in Indian politics, society, culture, folklore, public discourse, etc.

Occidentalism is spreading endemically. Ian Buruma and Avishai Margalit, who coined the term ‘Occidentalism’ and wrote a book on the subject in 2004, define it as: ‘The dehumanising picture of the West painted by its enemies is what we have called Occidentalism.”

It is that nobody has raised simple, obvious questions against Occidentalism. For instance, if carrying a briefcase — or, for that matter, wearing a convocation gown — is colonial hangover, what about democracy? And democratic rights of citizens? And civil liberties? And individual liberty? And human rights? Where did all these come from? Certainly not from Kautilya’s Arthashastra or Manusmriti.

Lord Acton called liberty “the delicate fruit of a mature civilisation”. That civilisation was and is Western; it was a gross misapprehension on the part of Gandhi to say that Western civilisation would be a good idea; it already is, has been for quite some time.

Liberty — and the concepts, governments, and institutions it spawned — did not emerge accidentally; thinking by innumerable Western philosophers and writers nourished the soil on which its tree grew. The tree was refreshed not just, as Jefferson wrote, “with the blood of patriots and tyrants,” but also — and more fundamentally — by the ideas of thinkers spanning over the millennia. All Western thinkers, one may add.

Beginning with Plato and Aristotle, and continuing for millennia, Western philosophy has always shaped and guided political thinking and politics. For instance, it was impossible for America to have come into being without the political philosophy of John Locke and the theory of separation of powers by Montesquieu. Similarly, there would have been no French Revolution without the thoughts of Voltaire and Rousseau. But all this happened only in the West.

Having imbued the Western ideas of individual liberty and responsible government, and having adopted the institutions supporting those ideas, expressing disdain for everything Western is not just ingratitude; it is also the apogee of cantankerousness.

At any rate, the ideas expressed by Plato, Aristotle, Locke, Montesquieu, Mill, and other philosophers are universal, not confined to and relevant for their own countries and periods only; this is the reason that they are taught in our educational institutions in the first place. This is also the reason that Buddhism and Tagore are studied by scholars all over the world.

By the way, the West didn’t discard the decimal system just because it originated in India; quite the contrary, it adopted it, using to develop mathematics and science, whereas we got lulled into otherworldly theories, ritualistic practices, and — this is a recent phenomenon — dogmatic attitudes. Occidentalism is such an attitude.

(The author is a freelance journalist. Views expressed are personal.)