Modernity and Indian Society

In his biographies,  especially when they are written by his fellow bhardalok Bengalis,  Rammohan Roy is usually subtitled ‘The father of modern India‘. It is an hyperbole and can be excused. Nonetheless, he was certainly the first man on subcontinent who seriously engaged himself with the challenges posed by modernity to traditional social structures. He was roundly abused by orthodox (traditional?) Hindus, who derided him as sinful atheist and ‘modern blinded by passion‘. European Christian was not warm to him either. They complained that he opposed conversion and his admiration of Jesus did not extend to acknowledging his divinity. [1]

The accusation that Indian society is incapable of changing by itself came from various Western thinkers. Most prominent among them was Karl Marx, a man of immense intellect. In his essay, The British Rule in India, he wrote that ‘England, it is true, in causing a social revolution in Hindostan, was actuated only by the vilest interests, and was stupid in her manner of enforcing them. But that is not the question. The question is, can mankind fulfil its destiny without a fundamental revolution in the social state of Asia? If not, whatever may have been the crimes of England she was the unconscious tool of history in bringing about that revolution.’ Among others, a French anthropologist Louis Dumont is very influential in academic circles. He wrote an authoritative book Homo Hierarchicus about Indian society.

These arguments that Indian society is incapable of changing or ‘unalterably hierarchical’ was built up during the high tide of imperial rule. It was not built up in a day, and a great deal of scholarship went into it. Both Indian and Western scholars contributed to it. Some Indians who were bitter opponent of caste system contributed immensely to this scholarship. But these assertions also had a certain political capital behind them, namely, if one can prove that they are unalterably hierarchal then it becomes very easy to maintain that in this modern world they are less fit for self-governance. [2]

Marx has been dead for more than 100 years and nothing original has been contributed by Indian Marxists who were mostly interpreting Indian society at their will to fit it in Marxists frameworks. The weakness of Marx on Indian society has been shown by the time itself. Louis Dumont still holds grounds and his book is an excellent work on Indian society but his black and white picture of Indian as ‘Homo Hierarchicus’ needs a serious revision for he did not consider modern India as a significant part of it. Modern India is a significant part of India itself, both in number and clout.   

It would be mistake to think that modernization follows the same course and leads to the same outcome at every place. Not all modern societies are modern in same way, and all traditional societies do not have cultural and social traditions of same kind. It is also not true that traditional societies do not change by themselves. The changes are generally slow and hard to detect for when traditional ways change themselves by some institutional or cultural innovation, these changes become part of tradition itself. Those who claims that traditional societies do not change can be compared with a person who has developed the habit of running. He sees strolling people as standing still.

The perception of Modernity in India is not homogeneous, it varies significantly from people to people and from place to place. In Northern cities, like Delhi, modernity is almost defined as the negation of traditions; while is southern cities like Chennai, modernity sits quite harmoniously with their traditions. However these contrast should not be overdrawn but these differences are quite sharp. Many times, traditions are confused with antiquities. Traditions are well defined social arrangements while antiquities are full of ambiguities. Antiquities are always old, traditions need not be. The tradition of research is a very new phenomenon Human history. It is hardly a century old even in European countries but it is a tradition nonetheless.

What is more important is the level of strain between so called Modern India and the traditional one. The idea of modernity does not look as enticing as it used to be some 60 years ago when India got independence. Indian State oriented its policies towards ‘modernization‘. Todays, even those who once claimed themselves to be ‘modern’ are not very enthusiastic about it. They still do not criticize modernity in open but they ask for caution before accepting anything (or everything) from other societies which are  perceived as modern in general public due to their economic superiority. Those who are more skeptical criticize it in the name of ‘Westernization’ of Indian traditions.
It is evident these days the modernization have its costs and sometimes its cost might outweigh its benefits. For example the ‘sexual liberation’ in the West has also increased teenage pregnancy and weaken the families. The decline of tradition takes away many well-tested values with it and pursuit of modernity may brings with it unforeseeable problems.

One of the most formidable voice of dissent, Ashish Nandy notes that ‘as India gets modernised, religious violence is increasing’, and he admires ‘traditional ways of life [which], over the centuries, developed internal principles of tolerance.’ In India, secularism has been criticized vis a vis modernization. In Nandy’s sharp conclusion, “To accept the ideology of secularism is to accept the ideologies progress and modernity as the new justification of domination, and the use of violence to achieve and sustain ideologies as the new opiate of the masses.’ (quoted in [3] pp 299-300). There is concern about the idea of an undivided India, which they say is less secure these days. They laments that ‘modern’ Indians are not hesitating in using undemocratic means to get done what they deem right. For example, violence in support of son-of-the-soil or the religion often comes from the one of the most modern section of the society. There were reports the anti-Muslim violence in Gujrat had many supporters from NRI moneyed class. The ‘Telengana movement’ has been sustained by a modern section of society so it marathi-manoos struggle in Mumbai. It is not my intention to put a value on these acts or to argue whether the grievances of people are real or not. What I wish to point out the ‘passion of patriotism‘ or the ‘spirit in an individual for the betterment of his nation‘ reduces rapidly as we move in to the more modern stratum of society. Their relations with the nation or community will be more ‘cost and benefit‘ related and it would be naive to expect them to behave otherwise. Everywhere poor people tend to be more traditional. Invariably they are also the more patriotic. Their patriotism may seem devoid of an educated conscience but it is patriotism nonetheless.      

No society can either be only modern or traditional. France is a very modern society, yet they are very proud, not to say jealous, of their traditions. Indian society, where traditions are deeply rooted, the hunger for modernization is also very deep. Even in remote villages, people are enticed by modern things. For one example, the mobile phone which is a mark of modernity, is deeply coveted by those who may not have any significant use of it. Some would say that it is a desire for a status symbol but status symbols are the symbols which are universally appreciated in a society. Any symbol which represents modernity, given high hunger for being perceived modern, transforms itself into a status symbol. Whether it is a mobile phone, or a refined English accent or branded’ clothes, they can easily become symbols of modernity. To some intellectuals with refined sensibilities this hunger towards ‘such modernity’ might be disconcerting.

A hardcore modernist may not always see tradition with suspicion. Although a great many of them do. India’s first prime minister, Jawahar Lal Nehru was a champion of modernization. He built many modern Institutes which stood the test of time despite of many attacks at their foundations. Yet he put a lot of premium on traditions and heritage of India but when talked about heritage he chiefly had in his mind the art, literature and philosophy and not the social custom of the day. These ‘social custom of days’ were deeply abhorred by another modernizer B. R. Ambedkar. For him, Indian traditions stood for oppressive social customs and must be done away with modern customs.

To distinguish modernity from tradition, I would argue that modernity see the world with somewhat more open and skeptical mind. I don’t think any society can survive, let alone flourish, by turning its back to traditions. Traditions are an outcome of slow and painful learning and there are great values hidden in them. They are not just dictated by some scriptures. These scriptures can be made to look either modern or medieval. If one reads Kalidasa via Rabindra Nath Tagore or Mohan Rakesh, he sounds very modern. In some other writings, it might sound very medieval. It would be all to good if modernity is used to refine traditions to get rid of unwanted and disgraceful customs.

The biggest asset of Modernity is it’s will to experiment. There is always a chance of finding something great out here and there, but what look attractive at distance to a modernist might not produce the same outcome as envisaged.

In competitive populism, especially our media which takes quite a pride in calling themselves modern and forward looking, traditionalist are viewed with suspicion at best.  It would be unfair to classify them as people who do not like changes. A traditionalist also like to see his society changing for betterment but he would rather dig down in his own traditions and culture to find the ingredients of change  rather then turning to outside world. To him, culture and tradition hold infinite wisdom. Tradition is a vast and inexhaustible storehouse where innumerable secrets are hidden. They would look into it to regenerate their society rather than looking out at world. It was evident when Bal Thackerey was telling youths via his paper to celebrate ‘Laila/Majnu day’ rather than celebrating it as Valentine day.

So what does modernity stand for? Why there is so much hunger for a particular kind of modernity in India, namely Western. One reason could be the language English which has enabled Indian society to be more porous for their influence. It is often a case in contemporary world that society that are less advanced economically imitate those who are more advanced mechanically and blindly without any consideration of its ill effect or their capacity to absorb or integrate what they have borrowed. Since the pressure to ‘catch-up’ is very high they also put pressure on their leaders to act accordingly without any calculation of long term costs or interests.

It is not to say that we should not learn from Western civilizations. In fact, we have much to learn form them. We have few things to teach also. They can learn from our experiences in democracy and handling diversity. We can learn how the best of their governments like Sweden and Norway treats their poor citizen and women while ours show a tremendous contempt towards them; how best of their scientists and engineers, say US and Germany, turn their ideas in working models, ours sit on the committees and publishes piles of papers or take prides in doing menial jobs, most of them are of dubious quality; how their public institutes are used to spread the sense of justice and law-and-order, ours are being turned into public offices for private convenience.

What is more distressing is the way we are perceive and practice modernity. We are yet to learn to take what is best for us while leaving unnecessary verbiage. Like Japan has done or Singapore is doing. It is distressing to learn that people are preferring Madona over Ravishankar, Paulo Coelho over R K Narayan, any arbitrary Western band over Indian Ocean. Indian ocean is an classical example how ‘modern people’ can suffocate indigenous invention simply because they cna not relate to them. If this imitation is called modernity and its sole purpose it to stands in the ways for ingenious innovations, then this imitation is only an impediment to modernization. Any impediment to modernity will not augur well for our society. Modernity despite of its all shortcomings punishes those who joins it late and it punishes them rather severely.


[1] The makers of Modern India, Ramachandra Guha
[2] The Idea of Natural Inequality and Other essays, Andre Beteille, pp 51,
[3] The Argumentative Indian, Sen Amartya



Author: Dilawar

Graduate Student at National Center for Biological Sciences, Bangalore.

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