Meet Salvatore Babones, the American academic who called Indian intellectuals ‘anti-India’

Even though one of his books argues against the ‘tyranny’ of experts.

WrittenBy:Aban Usmani
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In remarks widely reshared on social media, a western academic recently said at an India Today conclave that “India’s intellectual class is anti-India” and there’s a class that is “anti-Modi and anti-BJP”. He also argued that the international media is wrongly portraying India as a fascist state.

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Dr Salvatore Babones, an associate professor of sociology at the University of Sydney, also said India has problems “but the problem is” that activists, journalists and intellectuals “allow internationally to colour the overall evaluation of this system”. As anchor Rajdeep Sardesai tried to counter him saying that intellectuals are “at least raising a few red flags”, Babones asked if their criticism is “tied to the BJP government or will it continue inevitably to any other government who will come to power”.

As the comments went viral, Babones was criticised by several social media handles, who sought to know the relevance of such remarks by a western voice.

However, Shiv Aroor of India Today invited the sociologist back to another debate on the network, with tickers such as “Babones responds to brickbats” “after triggering India’s intellectuals”. The decision was lauded by right-wing handles.

But who is Babones, and where was he before his new-found virality?

An American citizen, Babones writes on public policy with a focus on the political economy of the Indo-Pacific region. Among his books are The New Authoritarianism: Trump, Populism, and the Tyranny of Experts, BRICS or Bust?: Escaping the Middle-Income Trap, American Tianxia: Chinese Money, American Power and the End of History, Sixteen for '16: A Progressive Agenda for a Better America and The Future of Development: A Radical Manifesto.

According to a report in the Print, he is registered as a “foreign agent” with the US Department of Justice and the Australian government, for working with an Indian media company based in Uttar Pradesh. He also confirmed that he was registered as a foreign agent because of a “consulting assignment” with Noida-based Democracy News Live for a “period of less than six months”.

“I had a small consulting assignment with this company for a period of less than six months. They approached me asking for help to reach out to the audience in the west. They wanted to know how to frame articles for the Western media so that their message reaches a broader audience, and I advised them on that,” he told the Print.

Asked if Democracy News Live is an Indian government-linked entity, owing to which he made this registration, Babones said he does not know that status, according to the report. 

According to the organisation’s website, DNL “stands to bring information and data that help us understand the core values of our world and our ability to be an equal part of it” and “works on issues through journalism to create awareness and influence policymakers”.

In September, Babones had made headlines with his article in Quadrant headlined “Indian Democracy at 75: Who are the Barbarians at the Gate?”, in which he argued that negative rankings of Indian democracy by major organisations appear disproportionate to the actual evidence. In a subsequent interview over his remarks published by News18, he slammed western analysts for their “partisan” approach.

With those comments as precedent, it wasn’t much of a surprise when he criticised intellectuals in response to Sardesai’s quotes on press freedom rankings.

India’s ranking in the 2022 World Press Freedom Index has slipped to 150 among 180 countries, according to the latest report released by the global media watchdog, Reporters Without Borders. The country was ranked 142 the previous year.

Babones’s views often align with right-wing voices on several issues. In an article in Foreign Policy in 2020, he criticised Chinese propaganda over Covid management. 

“So in more than one sense, COVID-19 really is the ‘Chinese virus,’ even if US President Donald Trump has lately promised to stop using the term,” he wrote. “It’s not just that it happened to strike there first. Arguably, it only struck at all because the Chinese government refused to learn the public-health lessons of SARS – lessons taught by its own government scientists. Then China repeated the misbehaviors that let SARS spread out of control and jump the border to infect people in more than 30 other countries and territories. Viruses may be forces of nature, but the coronavirus epidemic clearly seems to have been China-made.”

The remarks against intellectuals at the India Today conclave also bore a little resemblance to the theme of his book The New Authoritarianism: Trump, Populism, and the Tyranny of Experts. Warning readers against the “tyranny” of experts, Babones offers a corrective take on authoritarianism while arguing that an expert class designates rights and freedoms for citizens but is not accountable to them.

On Wednesday, he is set to be hosted by Dr Syama Prasad Mookerjee Research Foundation to share his views on “How International Democracy Ratings Misrepresent India” live on YouTube.

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