In 2013, a group of forty-six Indian tech entrepreneurs pooled their resources to fund the creation of an American-style liberal arts college in the small town of Sonipat, some fifty kilometres north of New Delhi. They only raised about A$25 million, but made commitments to give much more once the college got off the ground. Funding challenges notwithstanding, the sponsors hired a slate of the country’s most prominent intellectuals to form the initial faculty, partnered with the likes of the University of Pennsylvania and Sciences Po to provide academic oversight, brought in a fancy New York architect to design the campus, and showered top Indian students with scholarship offers. Ashoka University, named for the third-century BC emperor Ashoka the Great, duly opened to international acclaim in the fall semester of 2014 with an inaugural class of 133 students.
Naming a university after Ashoka was a self-consciously nationalist choice. The Ashoka Chakra (wheel of Ashoka) appears on the Indian flag, and the four-lion Capital of Ashoka is the national emblem. By all accounts the millionaires who funded the university wanted it to be a national project. The aspiration that came up again and again in interviews and presentations was that Ashoka should become “India’s Harvard”. And that’s exactly what they got: an Indian Harvard. Lacking the American Harvard’s US$50 billion endowment and nearly 400-year history, Ashoka didn’t immediately attract the world’s top academics or shoot up the international research rankings. But it did replicate Harvard’s self-indulgent faculty, spoiled student body, penchant for moral posturing, and overall sense of entitlement. In short, Ashoka went woke.
This essay appears in the latest Quadrant.
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Few non-Indians have heard of Ashoka University, but it gets an entire chapter in Snakes in the Ganga: Breaking India 2.0, the definitive guide to the Indian front in the world wokeness wars. Written by veteran Indian-American culture warrior Rajiv Malhotra with Vijaya Viswanathan, the 800-page Snakes in the Ganga is really three books in one. The first book-within-a-book outlines how woke intellectual fashions like critical race theory have been applied to India by scholars based in the United States, many of them of Indian origin and most of them with an activist axe to grind. The second book details the Harvard nexus, explaining how Harvard University shapes the world’s vision of India by running it through a woke American lens. The third book follows the money, demonstrating that much of the campaign to undermine India’s national institutions is ultimately funded by Indian billionaires, with help from Gulf Arabs and the Communist Party of China.
Snakes in the Ganga is not the sort of book that Western readers are likely to pick up at their neighbourhood bookshop. It is, however, a book that concerned spectators in today’s culture wars should be aware of, and active participants should seek out. In it they will find a treasure trove of actionable intelligence about the tactics and techniques used by radicals to normalise their demands and convince otherwise sane people to subvert their own societies. Many pundits (and now even pandits) talk knowingly about “cultural Marxism” and the “long march through the institutions”, but Malhotra and Viswanathan are the real deal. They have done the toilsome spadework needed to uncover and (crucially) document the pathways through which corporate money gets red-washed into political activism posing as academic research. The attention to detail of their work is as impressive as the scale.
The first part of Snakes in the Ganga lays out an indictment of wokeism. The book opens with a chapter called “Dismantling the United States of America” that surveys the various strands of contemporary critical theory: critical legal theory, critical race theory, queer theory and the rest. Malhotra and Viswanathan correctly trace these intellectual trends back to the early twentieth-century reconstruction of Marxism by Antonio Gramsci in Italy and (institutionally) to the Frankfurt School in Germany. All the usual suspects are there: Max Horkheimer, Theodore Adorno and Herbert Marcuse, with Pierre Bourdieu thrown in for good measure. It’s a potted history, but one that is meant to bring the reader quickly up to current debates over critical theory in the United States. Malhotra and Viswanathan are not entirely unsympathetic to critical theory, and indeed they identify some parallels between critical legal theory and the works of Mahatma Gandhi, and between queer theory and ancient Indian Vedanta spiritualism. They are sympathetic, but nonetheless cautionary.
For example, Malhotra and Viswanathan treat queer theory almost as a secular, low-culture version of Vedanta, which sees the transcendence of worldly gender categories as a form of enlightenment reached only through deep introspection by which “the outcome being desired by Queerists is not beyond, but within, the ego”. They point out that in the Vedic system God is often represented as “half male and half female”, positing “a blurring of boundaries between masculinity and femininity even in the understanding of divinity”. By contrast with open-minded Hindu traditions, they see queer theory (and other forms of wokeism) as paralleling a dogmatic form of Christianity. In doing so, they construct a chimeric composite portrait of Christianity that indiscriminately combines elements of Calvinism and Catholicism; Christian ecclesiology is, perhaps, not their strong suit. But they are right to see wokeism as a specifically post-Christian (not post-Hindu, post-Buddhist or post-Shinto) intellectual movement. The tenets of woke may not be Christan, but the mindset is.
Not only Christian, but American. Malhotra and Viswanathan see the American advocates of critical race theory and intersectional feminism as champions of “the rights of group identities” (italics in the original). They seem not to be aware of the centrality of individual choice in American wokeism. That is to say, a transsexual American doesn’t have group rights because “trans rights are human rights”. The transsexual American possesses “trans rights” through the fiat of personal choice: through the sovereign power to personally identify as trans. America is not woke because of its traditions of Christian authoritarianism, as Malhotra and Viswanathan would have it. America is woke because of its traditions of Christian choice. After all, if you can choose your own church, and even your own God, why not your gender? Woke American rights discourses are not fundamentally about demands for the rights of readily identifiable groups (men, women, children, African-Americans, native Americans) but for the rights of self-selected identity groups (transmen, transwomen, gays, lesbians, Blacks, First Nations). The difference is subtle, but important.
Thus when Malhotra and Viswanathan come to the “Americanization of Caste”, they mistakenly take American critical race theory at face value, instead of questioning its underlying motivations. The chapter focuses on a bizarre but nonetheless best-selling 2020 book by Isabel Wilkerson, Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents. Wilkerson argues that American racism is an absolute analogue of the Indian caste system. Wilkerson has a 1930s children’s encyclopedia knowledge of caste, and even that knowledge is misapplied. But her book has been highly influential, and Malhotra and Viswanathan are right to see in its success threats both to the international standing of India and the safety of American Hindus.
Malhotra and Viswanathan are even more concerned about another influential book, one that poses a more direct threat to Indian society: Ajantha Subramanian’s 2019 The Caste of Merit: Engineering Education in India. Subramanian is the Mehra Family Professor of South Asian Studies at Harvard University. Remember that honorific. In her book, she applies American critical race theory to diagnose structural casteism (an analogue for structural racism) at the heart of India’s flagship Indian Institutes of Technology (IIT) university system. The IITs are famously competitive, and despite the existence of gender and caste reservations, still overwhelmingly male and upper-caste. Like all merit-based institutions, they are exclusionary, and Subramanian identifies this with sexism and casteism (despite the aforementioned affirmative action reservations).
Malhotra and Viswanathan bemoan Subramanian’s identification of merit with casteism, and condemn her calls for Indian-American youth (many of them the children of elite IIT-educated immigrants to the United States) to disavow their supposed “caste privilege” and … what? Transfer power to African-Americans? Ensure that power in India (a country many of them know only as an ancestral homeland) is transferred to people from lower caste backgrounds? Subramanian isn’t exactly clear about this. Malhotra and Viswanathan are concerned that Subramanian has positioned herself “to own the discourse on caste in the American academy” (emphases in the original), and they may be right. But it seems that Subramanian herself is uncertain about exactly what to do with her discourse, other than to use it to deconstruct. She doesn’t seem to want to actually build anything. And that is the characteristic failing of all wokeism.
It is no coincidence that Subramanian teaches at Harvard, and no coincidence that her professorial chair has been endowed by an Indian billionaire (Rajesh Mehra, net worth: $1.5 billion). The second part of Snakes in the Ganga opens with a personal account of Malhotra’s long association with Harvard University, Harvard academics—and Harvard funding. Malhotra has seen first-hand how Harvard attracts Indian students and Indian money, then makes them its own. For a while, he even paid for a series of visiting professorships at Harvard, only to discover that his intentions for the funding mattered much less than the Harvard faculty’s. He pulled out, and started to warn other, bigger Indian donors about Harvard—to no avail.
For many Indian billionaires, the cachet of a Harvard, Stanford, Princeton or Penn connection is just too attractive to resist; all four universities have Indian or South Asian Studies programs funded by Indian billionaires. Malhotra personally warned Anand Mahindra (net worth: $2.5 billion) not to contribute to Harvard, but failed. In 2010, Mahindra gave $10 million to endow the Mahindra Humanities Center, which was already a bastion of critical theory before acquiring the Mahindra name. More successfully, Malhotra warned the late Dhirubhai Ambani off Harvard; after Ambani’s death, his son Mukesh (net worth: $95 billion) established a professorship in his father’s honour at Stanford. The chair went to one of the world’s most trenchant critics of contemporary India, Thomas Blom Hansen.
Today, giving to Harvard has become a competitive sport among rich Indians. The Tata family (aggregate net worth: immense) donated $50 million to Harvard Business School in 2010, getting a residence hall in return. Lakshmi Mittal (net worth: $16 billion) swooped in with $25 million in 2017, and got the naming rights to the Lakshmi Mittal and Family South Asia Institute. Even the Indian government has chipped in with $4.5 million for scholarships in honour of the economist Amartya Sen. But the scholarships don’t go to support economics students. They mainly support graduate students in South Asian studies.
Malhotra and Viswanathan contrast the no-strings-attached private Indian money that flows into Harvard (and other top institutions) with state-sponsored Chinese money. The Indians are buying prestige; the Chinese are buying influence. Malhotra and Viswanathan are very clear on this: China pays to have a positive image of the country promoted at Harvard, and (perhaps more importantly) to suppress any negative depictions. Harvard is by far the leading Western centre for the study of the China, but despite its deep connections to the country, Harvard rarely criticises China, and Harvard human rights research generally gives the country a pass. Harvard’s Roy and Lila Ash Center for Democratic Governance accepts substantial funding from, of all donors, the state-owned China Southern Power Grid. Board-level connections between Harvard research centres and major Western investors in China are also extensive.
Harvard may have long-standing ties to China, but it has only recently displaced Oxford as the world’s leading hub for the study of India. It did so by introducing the systematic collection of large-scale data into what had previously been a qualitative and humanistic discipline. There’s nothing nefarious in that, but Malhotra and Viswanathan are wary of the process: in essence, Indian billionaires are paying for Indian academics to assemble Indian datasets—at Harvard.
That might sound like a win-win for Harvard and India, but it also serves to immerse young Indian scholars in the Harvard value set. Let’s be frank: you don’t get ahead at Harvard by spouting Indian nationalism, or being overtly Hindu. The recruitment of Indian (as opposed to American) graduate students to staff Harvard’s India-focused research centres both reinforces the credentials of woke-leaning Indian intellectuals (they’re the ones who obtain valuable Harvard credentials) and socialises non-ideological Indian intellectuals into the woke agenda (through the mentoring they receive at Harvard). And they do get a woke education—at least with regard to India.
Malhotra and Viswanathan describe a project at Harvard’s Mittal Institute to compare meritocracy in India and China. The India half of the project took a critical theory approach explaining how meritocracy undermines social justice while reinforcing caste hierarchies. The China half extolled the virtues of meritocracy as the foundation of good governance under Communist Party rule.
The Mittal Institute’s Pakistan research is similarly soft on a country that should be an exemplar of everything that is wrong with governance by military dictatorship under sharia law. The institute’s small Pakistan program, funded by the Pakistani consumer packaging mogul Syed Babar Ali (a relative minnow at $330 million), seems to have been created in order to gain Harvard credentials for Babar Ali’s faculty at his own university in Lahore. No one outside knows exactly how Harvard’s Babar Ali fellows are selected, but what is certain is that the person who oversees the program, a Pakistani scholar named Mariam Chughtai, is committed to “rewriting the narrative” (her words) on Pakistan by portraying the country to Western audiences as largely peaceful and progressive. Whereas Harvard’s India program focuses on inculcating a critical understanding of India within India, its China and Pakistan programs focus on inculcating a positive image of China and Pakistan in the United States.
In the third part of Snakes in the Ganga, Malhotra and Viswanathan shift the focus to India itself. For well-informed Westerners, the findings that critical race theory undermines established societies (part one) and that Harvard University is the master node of anti-Western, anti-religious, anti-liberal intellectual networks (part two) will hardly come as any surprise. Western readers may be surprised, however, to discover how much progress wokeism has made in invading India. Obviously, the typical Indian farmer (and the typical Indian is still a farmer) is probably oblivious to the very existence of the culture wars. But as Trotsky may have said, “You may not be interested in the dialectic, but the dialectic is interested in you.”
The dialectic is very much interested in Indian farmers. A panoply of Western institutions centred on Harvard and Western human rights NGOs is determined to redefine poor Indian farmers as oppressed peoples, whether that oppression takes the form of caste, religion, gender, sexuality or language. This movement has strong allies in India’s own intellectual establishment. Not the entire establishment, of course, but the portion of it that might be called “Englishstan”: the elite stratum of Indian society that is more at home speaking English than Hindi or any of India’s two dozen other major regional languages. Indians themselves call this group, literally, “the Establishment” (with a capital E) or more disparagingly, the “Khan Market gang” (after the sophisticated shopping district in Delhi that is their favourite haunt).
Much to its dismay, India’s Establishment has lost control of the country’s political narrative in the era of mass politics. But just as in the Western world, the Establishment has sought to maintain its influence through the bureaucracy and the courts, and by attempting to control academic and media discourse. Even more than in Australia, India’s civil service and justice system are self-perpetuating, making it difficult for democratically elected governments to shape their composition and behaviour, but these organisations are ultimately more self-serving than woke. They may resist democratic reform, and they may be warrens of individual wokeness, but their primary purpose is self-preservation, not social change. As for the media, the cut-throat commercialism of India’s fragmented media market has relegated woke voices to the subsidised margins. There are some very woke media outlets in India, but they tend to serve a small, English-speaking minority. Indian farmers do not get their news from radical social-justice websites.
For the Establishment forces of wokeism in India, academia is where the action is. Under the guise of poverty alleviation and other social-justice causes, woke American universities are using Saudi and Chinese money to partner with Indian institutions to influence the Indian farmer (and slum-dweller, maid, tuk-tuk driver). Malhotra and Viswanathan devote an entire chapter to the work of MIT’s Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab (known as J-PAL). Founded in 2003 with funding from Saudi billionaire Abdul Latif Jameel (net worth: $11.5 billion), J-PAL works (in its words) “to reduce poverty by ensuring that policy is informed by scientific evidence”. They do this primarily in sub-Saharan Africa—and in India. In fact, not a single J-PAL project focuses on Saudi Arabia or the wider Arab world. And that’s not simply due to a laser-like focus on the poorest of the poor: J-PAL sponsors numerous projects in France and the United States. Ensuring that policy is informed by scientific evidence in the Arab world, it seems, is off-limits for J-PAL.
In India, J-PAL partners with a private liberal arts university called Krea University to promote a critical approach to addressing intersectional (such as female-Dalit or gay-Muslim) oppression. A key focus is the “big data” analysis of administrative datasets, using modern algorithmic computing techniques to advance critical theory. This is made possible in India by the centralisation of e-governance; these kinds of analyses are very difficult to do in a fragmented data environment like the one that prevails in the United States, though they may be coming soon to Australia. Malhotra and Viswanathan are careful to acknowledge that there is nothing fundamentally wrong with such analyses, and they believe that Krea does adhere to local laws on privacy and data security. Their objections are to the intentions and effects of these programs, not to the programs as such. The evidence may be all circumstantial, but their revelation that Saudi money is being used to promote American-style critical theory specifically in Indian academia is nonetheless provocative—and persuasive.
Malhotra and Viswanathan also devote a long chapter entirely to Ashoka University, which they call “Harvard’s junior partner” in India. It was originally intended by its mainly techie supporters to focus on engineering, but the philanthropists quickly realised that they didn’t have the resources to establish a truly first-class science school. So they settled for a focus on the social sciences and humanities, which are much cheaper. Being for the most part engineers (and not particularly well-informed on the liberal arts), they turned to India’s top intellectuals for advice: in other words, to the Establishment. They recruited a who’s who of India’s intellectual elite to found the university, attracting them with higher salaries than they could obtain in state institutions or from writing newspaper columns. And they got what they paid for: a bastion of wokeism, but a bastion with close research ties to prestigious Western institutions like Sciences Po, King’s College London, UC Berkeley, the University of Pennsylvania, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, and of course Harvard.
Ashoka is not the only woke Indian university, but it is the most prominent. Unlike older liberal arts faculties, Ashoka and the other new universities are not so much old-line leftist as new-style wokeist. India’s most prestigious public liberal arts university, the Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) in Delhi, remains the country’s most important centre for unreconstructed Marxist thought. It has not so much gone woke as receded into irrelevance. The new liberal arts universities like Ashoka and Krea have replaced JNU as the prime education venues for the non-gifted (or merely lazy) children of the country’s economic elite, who want a “name” degree but don’t necessarily have what it takes to earn one. The IITs are highly subsidised but extraordinarily competitive; the new liberal arts universities have more flexible admissions standards. For admission to an IIT, you have to ace a test. For admission to Ashoka, you have to submit an essay. One suspects that, as at Harvard, woke essays are preferred.
Throughout the book, Malhotra and Viswanathan are strangely sympathetic to wokeism and many of its core tenets. They seem to take pains to distance themselves from cranky conservative critics who oppose progress merely to preserve the past. It is not always clear whether they do this because they (like many elite Western critics of wokeism) are at heart progressive liberals who came to that criticism only reluctantly, or because they want to be seen as reasonable people by the very intellectuals and institutions they criticise. If the latter, then they have a lot to learn: there is no appeasing the woke mob. Either way, they open their concluding chapter with a sympathetic endorsement of the woke program:
The core thesis of Wokeism is that all structures must be dismantled that are in any way linked to the oppression of any groups of people and that were erected by the oppressors. We support this in principle as a way to remedy the past and move forward to a better future for humanity.
So far, so conciliatory. They qualify this overall appraisal, however, with one caveat:
Entirely new structures of oppression are being erected using technologies like Artificial Intelligence and big data in which the oppressors are the new elites. Entirely new kinds of oppressor/oppressed categories will replace the identities of race, ethnicity, religion gender and sexual orientation.
A naive reader who skipped straight to the conclusion might very well believe that Malhotra and Viswanathan have fallen for critical theory hook, line and sinker. But they go on to ask (rhetorically), “Could we not consider Cancel Culture and de-platforming as a Woke version of apartheid and untouchability?” They argue that:
The billionaires have outsourced the dismantling of the old order to the Left, using them as useful idiots. The alliance will be a temporary one in which one side is using the other to do the dirty work. Once the job of dismantling is done, the Woke Left will be rendered useless, and a new hierarchy will emerge, with the billionaires at the helm. [emphasis in the original]
That is a provocative thesis, but nothing in the empirical bulk of the book seems to support it. The billionaires examined by Malhotra seem either to have been duped, or to be pursuing strategic aims such as (for Gulf Arabs) the undermining of Hindu Indian culture or (for Chinese communists) the sapping of India’s will to defend itself. In short, there doesn’t seem to be any intentionality behind the billionaires’ support for woke ideology. Were Malhotra and Viswanathan classical Marxists (instead of anti-Marxists steeped in critical theory) they might identify the historical forces at work as being more impersonal. Seen from a historical materialist perspective, the billionaires need not be “using” the wokeists in order to benefit from their activities. The historical materialist requires only that the billionaires correctly perceive that woke capitalism poses no threat to them, and may indeed yield benefits.
Malhotra and Viswanathan similarly seem to misunderstand the true motivations for wokeism. They seem (whether ingenuously or not) to take critical theorists’ claims to be fighting for social justice at face value. But anyone who closely follows woke trends in academia (and Malhotra and Viswanathan follow them very closely indeed) should be aware that critical theorists exhibit very little concern for addressing real poverty, and are instead much more concerned with advancing the causes of relatively well-off members of self-professed identity groups. Put simply, elite university seats reserved for women or Dalits typically go to relatively advantaged women and Dalits, not to the abused daughters of Dalit farmers who are married off at sixteen years old. Thus when Malhotra and Viswanathan stress that “It will shock Leftists to understand that this revolution will not lead to a dictatorship of the masses (as aspired by Marxism), but a dictatorship of the elites” (italics in the original), one must wonder to what extent they are writing seriously, or merely rhetorically. Do Malhotra and Viswanathan actually believe that critical race theorists have drunk their own Kool-Aid? Nothing in the behaviour of wokeists implies that they have. At one point, Malhotra and Viswanathan even import a trope from Australia, noting that the website of Harvard University includes an acknowledgment of country (!) and asking “why are they not doing the right thing by returning” their stolen land, or using their “endowment to make reparations to Native Americans”. They seem to realise (though they steadfastly refuse to clearly state) that woke aspirations for a more just society are largely self-serving and insincere.
Snakes in the Ganga is a magisterial work, but one that is unlikely to be read by non-Indians. At over 800 pages, one suspects that it is unlikely to be read at all. Indeed, luminaries launching the book at public events routinely admit that they themselves have not read it, and Malhotra just as routinely beseeches attendees at these events to read the chapter overviews, and not worry too much about the chapters themselves. Malhotra has, however, given dozens of speeches and presentations based on the book, which ultimately serves more as the documentation that substantiates his public claims than as a volume to be read in its own right.
Malhotra is very popular in India and among the Indian diaspora, and his public appearances are heavily subscribed. He has recently been interviewed by the American public intellectual Peter Boghossian (who contributed a foreword to the book) and he deserves a wider audience in the Western world. Malhotra is one of the few interlocutors who is sufficiently comfortable with Western media norms—and sufficiently well-informed about India—to explain the country to the West. Snakes in the Ganga will not be a break-out book for Malhotra and Viswanathan that exposes them to a large Western readership. But it can and should form the basis for many conversations about India’s relationship with the West.
In the global ideological battle over “wokeness”, India is the big prize. It has an enormous population, a growing economy, a free marketplace for ideas, and an English-speaking media. American ideas that fail to pass the language barrier into Chinese (to say nothing of passing the Great Firewall into China itself) easily pass the culture barrier into India. There they find fertile soil, both because of the general receptiveness of Indian culture to new ideas and because of the continuing high prestige of American institutions. The free world has only recently gained India back from the brink of Soviet-aligned post-colonial socialism, and although the country is safe from Chinese influence, it is just as vulnerable to subversive ideologies as any other open society—and maybe more so. Many Western strategists still lament the loss of China to communism in 1940s. Much worse might be to lose India to wokeism today.
Salvatore Babones is an associate professor at the University of Sydney and the executive director of the Indian Century Roundtable. He writes the Philistine column for Quadrant